This IS a Catholic Country. but That Doesn't Mean Our Doctors Just Let People Die

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

This IS a Catholic Country. but That Doesn't Mean Our Doctors Just Let People Die


Byline: The Irish Mail on Sunday John Waters john.waters@mailonsunday.ie WRITE TO JOHN AT The Irish Mail on Sunday, Embassy House, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4

THIS week I have been receiving urgent queries from journalists in other countries all over the world asking for information about what happened to Savita Halappanavar. Her story has gone to every corner of the globe, and with it the suggestion that she died in a dark place, in a country obsessed by theological niceties and outmoded understandings.

Several of the emailed queries I received contained links to articles in British newspapers that made this analysis explicit.

What facts as had become available seemed to support this depiction of events. Savita Halappanavar, 17 weeks pregnant, presented with back pain at Galway University Hospital on October 21 and was found to be miscarrying. A week later, she died of septicaemia. Her husband claimed that she asked several times for her pregnancy to be terminated, but that this request was persistently refused. Mr Halappanavar claims the medical staff said they could do nothing because there was still a foetal heartbeat. He claims they were told that this was the law and that 'this is a Catholic country'.

My immediate instinct on reading the fulminations of those who depict my country in this way is that what they describe is not the country I know, nor is the law as they describe it. Ireland is probably one of the safest countries in the world for a woman to become pregnant and have her baby in.

YES, it remains - in a sense - a 'Catholic country' - but in practice this has not meant doctors standing idly by as women die. Catholic theology allows for intervention to effect a termination when a woman's life is in danger. It does not hold that the foetal heartbeat must have ceased. This, more or less, is also the law of the land, but in the final analysis the decision in each individual case is made by a consultant, who intervenes on a commonsense basis to bypass the myriad grey areas that can arise across the range of possible cases.

Knowing my country as I do, I wonder about that phrase: 'this is a Catholic country'. I am not suggesting it wasn't uttered, but I wonder about the context. Was it the expression of a blanket refusal by a consultant, or the ad hoc analysis of someone on the margins of the process? Was it offered as a rationale for inaction or as a reflection of some more complex position? Perhaps we'll never learn the answers to these questions. By the time the official reports on these events become available - in three months, for some unaccountable reason - the evidence may be inconclusive. Perhaps, because Savita Halappanavar is already dead, nobody will be able to say where that phrase came from.

If so, it will go down in history as one of those great slogans that have dogged all reasonable attempts to describe this country to those who do not know it, like Charlie Haughey's 'Irish solution to an Irish problem' or Cardinal Connell's 'mental reservation'.

I know where these phrases come from and what they are understood to convey, but I also know that to the ears of an outsider, they can sound different to the way they are heard by those who understand, more or less, how Irish life and culture work in practice.

IT REMINDS me of 20 years ago, at the time of the scandal surrounding the nefarious activities of the priest paedophile, Brendan Smyth.

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