A vigil for Savita: why so much hatred for women?

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Candles for Savita outside Irish Embassy, London

This week, the news broke about Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old dentist of Indian origin living in Ireland, who had last month presented herself to a hospital in Galway, Republic of Ireland, in terrible pain. It was found that she was miscarrying her first, unborn child 17 weeks into her pregnancy but medical staff treating Savita refused her pleading to terminate the already unviable foetus as its heartbeat was still detectable. Savita was left in agony, with no hope of giving birth to a live baby for days before the foetal heartbeat could no longer be found. Savita then developed septicaemia and died days later. When begging for an artificial termination to end her misery, she was reportedly told that “Ireland is a Catholic country,” and the doctors were therefore not able to terminate the pregnancy. Here is a link to the BBC story. Apparently, medical staff treating Savita ran the risk of being charged with murder had they brought this unviable pregnancy, already miscarrying, to a definitive end. For a clear explanation of the law in Ireland, please see the blog post by @_millymoo here.

Vigils and marches were held this week in Dublin, London and Delhi and yesterday I attended a candlelit vigil outside the Irish Embassy in London to mark my disgust at what had happened. For me it is just the latest instance of women having diminished rights, of receiving unfair and barbaric treatment because of their sex. In this particular case, it was clear that the rights of an unviable foetus took precedence over those of the woman carrying it but for me it was just the latest in a series of bad news stories.

My protest was also against the treatment of women as second class citizens all over the world. From the prevention of girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the prohibition on driving for women in Saudi Arabia to the disappearing girls in China and bride-burning and sexual harassment in India, all around the world there are instances of incredible and appalling barbarism towards girls and women. A Guardian article just today about Female Genital Mutilation in Indonesia (and the rest of the world) made me weep tears of rage.

Let us not just point the sanctimonious, enraged finger at Asian or Muslim countries though. Women are held as second-class citizens in supposedly Christian cultures too, and not only Catholic ones. Even in so-called developed countries, debate still rages about whether the work of a woman is of equal value to that of a man; whether women have permission to reach high office, or any office, in the Church, ironically by definition a caring profession. Societal issues about gender and childcare responsibilities mean that women’s talents and skills are often lost to the economy or that women are left doing two jobs, outside and inside the home, and being paid less than one man. Consider also why so much of the recent US Presidential election focused on the rights of a woman over her own body and of stupid politicians’ total and almost proud ignorance of female biology. People talk about being Pro-life, they are very good at telling others what to do with their bodies and lives, but we don’t often hear whether these people are willing to take on the emotional and financial responsibility for raising an unwanted, unplanned-for child for the next 20 years.

I want to know why so many people hate women so much. Or feel it is OK to denigrate them or belittle them or wave away the concerns of half the world. Women have to sacrifice their bodies and in many cases their mental and physical wellbeing, when having children and in many parts of the world pregnancy carries grave risk. Why, in 2012, is it still acceptable for women’s lives to be degraded by cultures and religions despite generally having responsibility for bringing forth and raising the next generation? A woman is more than a walking incubator.

As things stand, Irish women (and women from other countries with severely restrictive abortion laws, such as Poland) seeking a termination for whatever reason, whether they have been raped or sexually abused or have simply made a mistake, are forced to come to Great Britain, where they are supported by the British taxpayer and the NHS. Women whose unborn children are so severely disabled that they are unviable outside the womb are forced to carry through their pregnancies without medical intervention. How is this acceptable in 2012?

So all of these things were racing through my head as I went to the Irish Embassy yesterday to support the Savita protestors campaigning for the Irish government to introduce proper legislation to give Irish women the right to abortion in their country. There were about 100 demonstrators there, and at one point four vans full of police officers were shipped in to keep the peace. Some demonstrators were blocking the road, it is true, but many of the Irish women protesters present refused to move from their embassy steps, Irish soil. Eventually, after having made our point, we dispersed, some of us to return home, some to plan a future strategy.

I am so pleased and proud that Darling Daughter decided to come along with me to the vigil. I generally strongly disapprove of parents bringing young children, who are unable to think through the issues and make up their own minds, to demonstrations and protests. An ex-school chum of the Boywonder’s was always being photographed for the local paper with his father, a local councillor, and holding placards to support his father’s campaign against the local psychiatric hospital, for example. I feel the same way about religious faith. I have none, but it is up to my children to decide whether or not they want to be part of a faith. In the meantime I would never prevent them from attending services or rituals to learn about faiths and cultures.

But Darling Daughter is a clever and thoughtful child and always has been. She is extremely interested in human rights and currently intends to work in this field. It was completely her choice to come on this, her first demonstration, and I respect and admire that she stayed despite being hugely intimidated, especially by the arrival of so many police. At one point she and I were standing on the pavement taking in the candles in the photograph and we looked up to find ourselves surrounded by eight police officers.

I know that just attending a demonstration or a vigil does not in itself make a lot of difference in the world, but apathy and ignoring an undesirable situation enables tyrants to win without effort. Is that really the sort of world we want for our daughters?


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