It’s hard to articulate the feelings of frustration, rage and helplessness that come from hearing about the death of a young woman in an Irish hospital of septicaemia after a miscarriage. After being told the baby would not survive, the woman’s husband said doctors refused requests for a medical termination.
It’s hard to properly describe, too, the lingering sense that perhaps blood is on our hands. We are the people who allow our public representatives to push abortion legislation down the political agenda. We are the people; we make the laws. Did a young Indian woman have to die in a Galway hospital, reportedly told that this was a “Catholic country”, before we got upset enough to do something? Isn’t a refusal to try harder – to get angry enough to effect political change – also, in its own way, a tacit consent?
‘Shame’ ran the headline of one placard carried by a protester outside the Dáil on Wednesday night. The New York Times, the London Independent, Al Jazeera: media outlets in countries around the world told the story of what happened – and they judged us for the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who arrived into a Galway hospital pregnant one week, and was carried out of it the next, to her funeral. They were correct to do so. In our inertia, we are all complicit.
Last month, Time magazine carried a portrait of Enda Kenny, thoughtful and erudite-looking, on its cover. The Last Action Hero for Ireland, the Green Saviour. In the accompanying interview, Kenny spoke of how now was not the time for abortion legislation.
“I think that this issue is not of priority for government now,” he said, confident he was reflecting the views of his backward-facing Emerald Isle.
And you wonder: were we just better at protesting in the 1970s and 1980s? Remember those images of Nell McCafferty on the contraceptive train? Remember those 1980s photographs of celebrities at pro-choice movements? Have we become so overwhelmed by mortgage stress, so distracted by our iPhones, so enthralled by dancing kittens on YouTube, that we can’t focus on anything of worth? Are we – in our heart of hearts – sometimes a little embarrassed about being gauche enough to be seen waving a flag at a protest march and standing up for what we believe in?
Ordinarily, this column is intended to discuss arts and cultural issues, about anything from Big Brother to the Rolling Stones. But culture, in its widest form, is about the structure inside which we exist today. It includes gay rights and women’s rights. And it is the trampoline that is now propelling the tragic story of Savita skywards.
News of her death bounced from a person with ten followers on Twitter to a person with 10,000. Reading the outpourings of compassion for Savita, I saw urgent tweets being sent to feminist writers including Naomi Wolf and Caitlin Moran, asking them to make the story known to their huge audiences. People were agitating, forming protests in Dublin, London and further afield. Writing 20,000 emails of protest to their TDs, mobilised by bloggers and tweeters.
Will it help effect change? None of it will bring a young woman back. But we have to try to make our voices heard.
The BBC’s Mark Simpson was one of several reporters who interviewed Savita’s husband last week. Asked by Simpson if he felt his wife would be alive if she could have had an abortion, he answered simply: “Of course. No doubt.”