Savita Halappanavar’s last moments

I have blogged about the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar previously. I just read a timeline of her time in hospital. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant when she went to the hospital due to extreme pain. She was actively miscarrying. Unfortunately for Savita she was in Ireland where her pregnancy could not be terminated as long as there was a fetal heartbeat. The timeline reads like a horror of medical decisions based on church doctrine enshrined in law.

For days Savita languished in a hospital bed asking to have her doomed pregnancy terminated. She had accepted that she was losing a child she desperately wanted. Finally when the fetal heartbeat stopped, the hospital evacuated her uterus. After the procedure, one of the nurses told her it was a girl. Savita desperately wanted a girl.

As Savita’s condition worsened, the doctors assured her husband she would be fine. Then the ask him if she had been around farm animals or anywhere strange as she had contracted e. coli as if somehow it was her fault that she was so sick. At one point the doctor leaves a critically ill Savita to go to the chapel and pray.

The doctors at this hospital in Galway told Savita that they could not terminate her pregnancy because it was against the law. It would seem that the Catholic Church places more value in the potential of life, than in actual life; the fetus trumps the mother. This is an inherently misogynistic and violent position. The Catholic Church does not value women. While men can become priests and rise to the position of pope, women are completely shut out of this career path. Sure they can become nuns and minister to the poor, teach or become nurses but they are never really in a position where they can influence church policy or make decisions. By shutting women out from the highest levels of church office, the voices of Catholic women are not heard or considered.

Savita was not Catholic. Yet she became a victim of Catholic doctrine. In a country where religious doctrine dictates medical treatment and where a doctor’s answer to a critically ill patient is to blame her, while he goes off to pray, many women will die. How many women have died because their fetus’s heartbeat was still detectable? How on earth can doctors practicing in Ireland fulfill their oath as they let a patient deteriorate and die all because her dying fetus still had a heartbeat?

I hope that Savita’s husband Praveen sues not only the hospital and the Irish Government but also the Catholic Church. We must move on from a place where the religious beliefs of a few privileged men determine whether women live or die.

A woman’s right to choose

Savita Halappanavar

Savita Halappanavar presented at a hospital in Galway, Ireland. She was actively miscarrying her baby and begged for an abortion. Doctors there refused because they could still detect a fetal heartbeat. She begged for 3 days while she was enduring unrelenting pain. Finally, the dead fetus was removed several days later but it was too late for Savita as she died of septicemia. Unfortunately for  her, she was in a Catholic country.

Even though the medical staff knew she was miscarrying they were too scared of the possible repercussions if they aborted the fetus. That this kind of thing can still happen in 2012 is shocking. The separation of church and state has been a reality in most western nations for a very long time and with good reason. In fact, when we do see countries ruled by religion we are righteously indignant. Iran certainly comes to mind. Slavish adherence to Islam (purportedly) keeps women enslaved and impedes basic freedoms. Yet here we have Ireland, supposedly a western nation, where priests and the Catholic Church rival even the most religious mullah when it comes to control over the local population. While we rightly criticize the role of religion in government why is it that the Catholic Church gets a free pass?

Catholics believe in some strange things. Transubstantiation[1] is perhaps one of the most out there beliefs. Priests are central to the Catholic Church; Adherents believe in the priest’s power to interpret the bible and advise them on how they should live their lives. The Catholic Church does a really good job of indoctrinating its children through catechism. Then there is the dubious idea of confession. Confess your sins to a priest and it really does not matter what you have done. Clearly the Catholic Church extends this idea to its own. The pedophilic priests of the past century have mostly received a free pass for their crimes against children. Moved from parish to parish, their crimes covered up by the Vatican, these priests victimized so many children.

Perhaps our society withholds judgment of the Catholic Church because they are ostensibly Christian[2]. We have all been conditioned to believe that the Christian religions are right and good and all others (particularly Islam) are wrong and bad. It plays into the oppositional binaries with which we organize information. Anyone growing up in one of these cultures generally sees Christian religions as familiar and ‘like us.’ While most western countries were founded on Protestant Christianity we still mostly accept Catholicism.

So in Galway, Ireland, a woman can still die from complications of a miscarriage because the Catholic Church still dictates medical care when it involves pregnancy. Even though doctors knew she was miscarrying and her life was in danger they were still loathe to do anything that would upset their Catholic overlords. Ultimately Savita Halappanavar paid the price with her life because some men in dresses in Rome decided that her fetus had more rights than she did. Isn’t this actually an anti-life stance? After all the fetus was not going to live and now we have lost the mother too.

[1] The belief that God, through the priest, transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

[2] I am not in any way saying that other Christian religions are better.

Opening up the Abortion Debate in Canada

Well, sadly, it would seem that I was prescient when I wrote Reproductive Rights Discourse on March 18, 2012. In this post, I explored how Canada is affected by political discourse coming out of the United States. In the last 2 years, there has been an assault of biblical proportions on not only abortion but also contraception in the US. Even though Stephen Harper has said he is not interested in opening up the abortion debate he seems willing to let his backbencher Stephen Woodworth do it for him.

Motion 312, put forward by Woodworth, seeks to change the definition of when a fetus becomes a child. Referencing Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada, a fetus becomes a human being once it is born. Woodworth is asking the following questions:

  1. what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?
  2. is the preponderance of medical evidence consistent with the declaration in Subsection 223(1) that a child is only a human being at the moment of complete birth?
  3. what are the legal impact and consequences of Subsection 223(1) on the fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth?
  4. what are the options available to Parliament in the exercise of its legislative authority in accordance with the Constitution and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada to affirm, amend, or replace Subsection 223(1)?

The questions Woodworth is seeking to answer in Motion 312 would fundamentally change how abortion is viewed and provided in Canada. If passed, this motion could mandate all sorts of restrictions on access to abortion.

Now, one might want to ask why Stephen Harper has allowed this motion to go forward. There is no way that Harper the Control Freak would allow anything to go forward without his approval. So even though he says he does not want the abortion debate opened he is allowing just that to happen. He says he will vote against the motion but what does that really mean? By allowing this motion to move forward he is adding to the discourse that seeks to impose severe limitations on a woman’s right to choose. And, as students of discourse theory know, the more we talk about something the more powerful the discourse becomes and before we know it trans-vaginal ultrasounds are the norm prior to abortions in Canada.

Now, lest you think it is only the Conservative party of Canada who is seeking to oppress women let’s take a look at the Liberal Party of Canada. Justin Trudeau has been tweeting, quite proudly, that the LPC will have a free vote on this issue. That’s right folks, the LPC is also prepared to allow their MPs to vote their ‘conscience.’ This pisses me off. A quick scan through the list of MPs indicates 5 of 35 Liberals elected to Parliament are women. When Liberal MPs are allowed to vote their ‘conscience’ 30 men will get to have a say on what women do with their bodies. This is an excellent example of why the LPC is doing so badly in Canada: there is no leadership, no ideology to which people can adhere. It is in these really tough decisions that leadership makes a difference. Bob Rae has an opportunity to show he can lead. Sadly, I think we will all be disappointed.

What I find even more disturbing is the lack of leadership from Justin Trudeau. This is a man who grew up in a political house with one of the best leaders Canada has ever had.[1] He should understand how important ideology is to politics. Did he not learn lessons from his father? He is also of a younger generation than Bob Rae. This does not bode well his future in politics.

Now onto the NDP; Nikki Ashton announced “In Canada, in 2012, a woman’s right to choose is not up for negotiation.’ She confirmed that the NDP would vote unanimously against the motion. Don’t forget that the NDP now has over a hundred members from Quebec where Catholicism still runs deep. Tom Mulcair, unlike the wimpy Rae and Harper, is not allowing his MPs to a free vote. He understands that to do so would be to muddy waters about the real issue, which is safe access to abortion for all Canadian women.

Living in a society where men are the overwhelming decision makers about women’s access to reproductive choice is so incredibly disturbing. This makes it clear that women are still second-class citizens in this country. When men are able to carry a child to term, then perhaps they can have a say. Until then they have no right to force their or their god’s[2] will on women.

[1] I can never decide who was the best leader: Trudeau or Chretien.

[2] Don’t forget, most people who are anti-choice are doing it because of religious doctrine.

Reproductive Rights Discourse

There is a war going on. It is being fought on the battlefront of women’s’ bodies. Our uteri have become organs to be legislated and fraught over. We have been deemed too feeble minded to make decisions about when we will engage in sexual activity and with whom. Women making decisions about their sexual lives is coming to an end in the United States. Even though all of this is taking place in another country make no mistake Canada is affected. Pierre Trudeau once astutely pointed out that we are the mouse living beside the elephant and if the elephant rolls over, well you get it.

Many Canadians avidly follow American politics. Given that their elections go on for years[1] they get a lot of airtime and ink (both real and electronic) spilled about their positions. When you factor in blogs and other social media the discourse coming out of the Republican Primaries is powerful. Just look at Sandra Fluke. I am fairly sure most people have either read or heard about what Rush Limbaugh said about her and the subsequent call that Barrack Obama made to her.[2] Even though advertisers have pulled their sponsorship from Limbaugh’s show the damage to women has already begun.

I am sure you are wondering why this matters to us in Canada. It is simple, as regressive and oppressive American politics make their way into the dominant discourse thoughts and opinions are formed. Many Canadians may well believe that women have it pretty good in this country. Abortion is legal and accessible. Contraception is just a visit away from a family doctor. Most Canadians believe that making women’s reproductive health accessible is the right thing to do. The separation of morality from medicine is more common in Canada than in other countries.[3]

If your only source of knowledge about women is the US primary race your view of women would be skewed. According to Republican presidential candidates, women are not to be trusted with decisions about their own reproductive health. Want an abortion? Almost half of States have some kind of legislation that impedes women’s access. These barriers can range from a waiting period, to an ultrasound in which the doctor must ‘explain’ exactly what the fetus looks like and its stage of development. Some states have gone so far as to mandate a ‘trans-vaginal’ ultrasound. Many feminists have correctly identified this as state-sanctioned rape. Women are also seen as the ‘gate-keepers’ to sex and that if sex happens out of wedlock or in other situations it is somehow her fault. It is as though all of women kind is expected to modulate the behavior of men. Last time I checked that didn’t work out so well.[4] And, as any woman knows, if some men really want to rape them it will happen.

What is interesting in the reproductive rights fight in the US is that there is little to no mention of men’s role in sex and reproduction. We all learn in school that it takes both a woman AND a man to create a baby. Men have pretty much unfettered access to drugs to ensure they can have sex long into their later years without any kind of intrusive exam. This is what is so absolutely galling about the Republican candidates positions on reproduction. Sex should be a negotiation between a consenting woman and man. Both should experience the pleasure and the pain of their actions.

Even though women enjoy more reproductive freedom in Canada it does not mean we should rest on our laurels. The presence of US styled misogyny can affect politics here. There are some extremely right-wing Christian religious groups in Canada who try to flex their political power. Often they receive funding from their compatriots in the United States. In fact, our current Conservative government may be receptive their messages – especially at the polls.

The political consequences of the Elephant rolling over are easy to delineate for Canada. What is more disturbing is the affect this has on the dominant discourse. Canadians are being indoctrinated with this negative view of women regardless of the political bent of our current government. As these ideas take hold it becomes easier for people to view women through this same lens. Canadians are the most wired country in the world. Internet penetration here is greater than any other place. This means that we are being exposed to this misogyny at a much greater level. Don’t be surprised if some of these ideas penetrate into our politics. We can only hope that Stephen Harper sticks to his decision about not re-opening the abortion debate in Canada. It would be disastrous for women if he did.

For an excellent overview of the ongoing disaster that is the Republican Primary please see Shakesville.

[1] The primary system whereby each state’s party members have a vote in selecting the candidate for president.

[2] He called her to thank her for standing up for women’s reproductive rights which, ironically, have been steadily eroded under his presidency.

[3] This is true for many things. However, when faced with a fat person, some doctors will attribute everything to weight. Got a hangnail? It’s because you are fat. But I digress…

[4] Foster Friess – who is associated with the Santorum campaign made this suggestion to women.