Sometimes journalists here in Ireland are reminded that they are also human beings. Eight weeks ago we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl, our first child.
So when I read the tragic story about Savita Halappanavar my first reaction was human: A feeling of compassion and sadness that any family could so quickly go from the joy of expecting a child to the ashen grief of losing both mother and child. It is a transition too brutal for words.
As well as being human, I am also a radio presenter. In that capacity, another transition struck me: The transition from the feelings of sadness and shock that all of us felt on hearing the story to the reaction that some – those who appeared to know much more about the story than the rest of us – felt of righteous indignation, zeal and anger: According to that reaction, this was not just the death of a woman: This was a call to arms to legalise abortion right now.
Now while I do not necessarily share it myself, as a broadcaster I see and facilitate debate on the case for changing Ireland’s constitutional protection of unborn life. But I was deeply disturbed last week by the suddenness with which sensitive consideration of the facts of Savita’s death was swept aside in favour of a prejudicial and politically motivated narrative.
The facts are this: The coroner’s report into Savita’s death showed that she died in Galway’s University Hospital of Septicaemia about four weeks ago (why it took this long to report the death is unclear). She was pregnant at the time of the illness and Savita’s husband says the family had asked for an abortion only to be told – by whom is not clear – that “This is a catholic country” and that an abortion was therefore illegal even though, in this case, the unborn child was going to die anyway.
Allegedly – and that word must be stressed – the hospital waited until the baby’s heart had stopped beating before emptying Savita’s womb some days after which she died.
Reflected in news headlines like “Woman ‘denied a termination’ dies in hospital” – the assumption was relayed around the world that Savita was killed because she was denied an abortion by Ireland’s pro life legal regime. If only we Irish were not so “cruel” she might still be alive, so the narrative goes. Indians were also reported to be outraged at how one of their citizens died at the hands of Ireland’s “barbaric” laws.
Had Savita died for want of an abortion, those conclusions might be justified. But to paraphrase a saying about the media - that bad news has travelled around the world before good news has got its boots on - half baked assumptions and misperceptions can travel around the world twice before the facts have even gotten out of the shower.
And the facts are that – as Health Minister James Reilly stated last week - there is “no evidence” that Ireland’s “Catholic ethos”, laws or medical practice killed Savita. Whether medical practice was followed is another story. Until a report is completed, we do not know. But as consultant gynaecologist Dr. John Monaghan confirmed in my studio on Wednesday 14th November last, neither Irish law nor Irish “Catholic ethos” lets the life of an unborn child stand in the way of any intervention needed to save a mother’s life and unborn children have been removed from their mothers to save the mother’s life in Irish hospitals.
Some days ago Dr. Hema Divakar, President of the Indian Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological societies of India told the Hindu Times: “Based on information in the media, in that situation of septicaemia, if the doctors had meddled with the live baby, Savita would have died two days earlier,” adding further that, “Delay or refusal to terminate the pregnancy does not in itself seem to be the cause of death”.
Instead of reporting this, the media has presented Ireland as a Frankenstein using emotive language in a way that risks stoking Irish-Indian enmity. But just as the gendercide of 50,000 baby girls in India each year is no reflection on India or Indians, what happened to Savita is no reflection on the catholic ethos of Ireland or the Irish.
But some people have seen their chance to establish – or re-inforce – a narrative and have taken it. Tweeted and blogged around the world in an instant, the perception of Ireland as “barbaric” “medieval” and “cruel” has entrenched itself in the minds of many.
The facts – it seems – do not matter. But the facts are getting more and more interesting: On Sunday the Sunday Independent – a paper to which I contribute – reported that pro-abortion campaigners had known of the case in advance. The suddenness and highly organised nature of the protests that followed the breaking news was remarkable. So was the “coincidence” that the story was broken on the same day a sensitive report on abortion was presented to government.
To paraphrase the words of William Butler Yeats, this is a case in which the most informed have lacked conviction, while the least informed and most ideologically driven seem to be full of passionate intensity. Having just passed a referendum to protect the rights of of children, it is too soon to conclude that they should be taken from unborn children.
As a broadcaster I recognise that there is a case to be made for legalising abortion in Ireland. There is also a case for preserving the right to life of the unborn child. Those wishing to advance the former view should not use the tragic death of Savita to advance their cause until the full facts are known. A final point must be made: Many of the references made to “Irish Catholicism” in the last few days appear to reflect a prejudicial knee jerk hatred that will use any excuse to express itself.
Were deaths in Israel and Gaza to be attributed to “Judaism” or “Islam” the result would quite rightly to invoke incitement to hatred laws against those doing so. Exploiting human suffering to peddle anti-religious prejudice is unacceptable and responsible media must have nothing to do with it.
*Marc Coleman is a broadcaster, columnist and author and is writing in a personal capacity.