Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Don’t let racists hijack Savita’s death

savitaA guest post from Farzana who dedicates this piece to the memory of Savita Halappanavar, who died on October 31st 2012.

“Bigotry tries to keep truth safe in its hands with a grip that kills it”.  Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941)

I was up working late on Tuesday night when I spotted a tweet from Sinead Redmond referring to the front page of the Irish Independent on the death of a woman in Ireland, who may have died from being refused an abortion.

My heart sank as I read with sadness the circumstances of Savita’s death. I cannot pretend to know the intricacies of the abortion laws in Ireland, however this film produced by Heather Browning and her colleagues provides an excellent narrative of the issues and lack of political will to change the law after the landmark case of “Anonymous X”.

For a very quick (and basic) summary: abortion is illegal in Ireland unless the mother’s life is at risk. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which governs abortion in Ireland, remains firmly in place despite being a British act of parliament. In 1983, the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution protected the right of “the unborn,” by stating that “the unborn have a right to life from the time of conception.”

In 1992, the Irish Supreme Court effectively prevented a 14 year old traumatised rape victim from travelling to the UK where she could have accessed a safe and legal abortion. The Attorney General was responsible for requesting the injunction which prevented ‘X’ from travelling to the UK to terminate her pregnancy.

It is from within this quagmire of legal uncertainty, religious prohibition and state intervention that Savita’s unnecessary and tragic death must be seen. There is also the very large and looming issue of medical malpractice, which has seen the instigation of two investigations into the handling of Savita’s treatment at the hospital in Galway.

When I read Praveen’s (Savita’s widower) account of the agony his wife was in and the reaction of the consultant when Savita asked for the pregnancy to be induced (as the foetus was unviable), I was angry and humiliated for the Halappanavars, who were told “This is a Catholic country.” A few tweeters noted the inherent racism within that response, Sunny Hundal and Sam Ambreen among them.

However, when this was pointed out over the next few days, a very typical response came from certain people who refused to acknowledge that that statement could be perceived as being racist. We were accused of being “over-sensitive”, “reading too much into it” and so on.

What I would say to those people is this: imagine you were Savita and Praveen. Savita was in agony by the time her cervix had dilated and both she and her husband were undoubtedly traumatised and upset that they were to lose their first child, thousands of miles away from home, away from the comfort of the familiar.

Now imagine, as foreign, non-Irish, non-Catholic people that the medical intervention you have requested in good faith is effectively rejected in the name of Catholicism. Imagine if your daily lived reality is one of “being the other”.

If you haven’t experienced racism in its obnoxious and subtle forms then one could see how you might not relate to how those similar to the Halappanavars would legitimately react. If you do not know what it is like to be of a non-white skin colour, if you do not know what it is like to worship God in a different form, if you don’t have the same ethno-linguistic or cultural norms or values as the majority, if you are made to feel as if your non-white skin colour, your different way of worshipping God, your norms are inferior, then you do not know what it was like for Savita and Praveen at that time.

Predictably a small but highly vocal racist group of anti-choice people have attempted to hijack the death of Savita and have some very strange views – views which fetishise the foetus but hate the brown mother. Some of these tweets have now been removed, and I won’t link to their authors anyway, but one of the earliest I spotted said,

“The baby Savita (rip) lost was female. Many Indian people abort female babies. 2 facts”.

Savita was 17 weeks pregnant, ultrasounds between 18 and 26 weeks of pregnancy can usually indicate the sex of a baby, so they are  factually incorrect here. The tweeter implies that sex-selective abortions are a cultural norm. India is a huge country, our diaspora community is huge, we are global, we are everywhere. There may well be a preference for males in the sub-continent, but to claim that sex selective abortions are responsible is dangerous and simply wrong. It is an attempt to attack Savita’s Indian heritage, my heritage, as one which is violently disproportionate in favour of men.

However, if you consider that India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh all have had female heads of state far earlier than any western country (the UK had to wait until 1979 for Margaret Thatcher and Ireland until 1990 for Mary Robinson), for countries which are portrayed as being so patriarchal and male dominated, we didn’t too badly.

I had a sinking feeling that the most uninformed anti-choicers would use the ethnicity of Savita as a tool in their disastrous counter-campaign against a very angry and grief-stricken pro-choice movement.

A second tweeter stated,

“That Muslim girl died, she was refused an abortion, am not racist but I f-ing hate smelly rag heads.”

After I had picked myself up off the floor laughing hard at his “That Muslim girl,” (Savita was HINDU), I again felt the unease that racism, stupidity and anti-choice sentiment are an explosive combination. That Savita was Indian, means that her ethnicity will be a factor in their frothy-mouthed bigotry.

I actually replied to the tweet, saying “You do realise the woman who you implied as being a smelly rag head was in fact Hindu and not Muslim? PS I’m a smelly rag head.”

I await his response, if any.

The most disturbing commentary on Savita’s death however has come from a well known anti-choice racist/White Nationalist called John Kavanagh.

He writes,

“I know Indians tend to be a bit slow and backward, but this is ridiculous.”

If Indians are “slow and backward” when India is 10th largest economy in the world, 3rd for purchasing power, exports worth $299.4 billion, you have to ask him to put the crack pipe down and walk away slowly.

He goes on,

“If Indians don’t like the way we do things in Ireland, then go back to your smelly, dirty, overpopulated country”

Overpopulated? Hang on – in the same argument, he says that there is “no justification to allow the murdering of unborn babies.” I would also have to say plenty of Irish people leave Ireland too to look for jobs abroad… and to get away from people like you.

Savita’s death was horrible enough. Praveen, her husband, intends to return to Ireland to fight for justice for his wife. Do not kid yourself into believing that the fight will be easy, in fact it will get a whole lot worse with people attempting to racialise the case, before it can get better.

A fitting legacy to Savita’s memory would be if Ireland would just reconsider their current legislation and make the necessary changes to ensure that no woman whether white, brown, Catholic or non-Catholic is ever told “This is a Catholic country” as justification to deny a life saving medical intervention.

Pro-choice is more ‘Pro-life’ than the anti-choicers would have you believe. Reclaim the term, we OWN it.