The pro-choice lobby’s exploitation of the Savita tragedy could backfire badly

The old saying “hard cases make bad law” should be heeded as much by progressive campaigners as by fusty lawmakers. Because it is equally true that tragic cases make bad reforms. The pro-choice activists currently holding up photos of Savita Halappanavar, while calling on the Irish authorities to legislate for some forms of abortion in order to “protect women’s lives”, could unwittingly help to give rise to an Irish abortion law that negates women’s autonomy rather than accentuating it.

It is not surprising that people are angry about what happened to Halappanavar, a dentist from India who had settled in Galway. It is a genuinely shocking case. Halappanavar died from septicaemia and E Coli in a Galway hospital, following a three-day-long, excruciatingly painful miscarriage. It is reported that she asked doctors to terminate her pregnancy, but they refused on the basis that the fetus still had a heartbeat. In Ireland, following the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in the case of X, it is legal to carry out an abortion if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother – but this was not done for Halappanavar.

The protests in response to Halappanavar’s death, which have taken place in Dublin, Cork, Galway and outside the Irish Embassy in London last night, are understandable. People are angry and they want answers. Indian people are angry, too, with one newspaper headline there unapologetically declaring: “Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist.”

But what is worrying is the way many of these protesters are extrapolating from the Halappanavar case to depict all women in Ireland as permanently at risk, as vulnerable creatures who could at any moment “die at the hands of misogynists”, as one commentator puts it, through being forced to continue with their pregnancies. Not only is this an inaccurate portrayal of the abortion situation in Ireland – it also adds up to a demand that Irish women should be granted abortion rights on the basis that they are vulnerable to harm, rather than on the basis that they ought to have moral autonomy over their lives, including, crucially, over their reproductive lives.

Pro-choice activists have self-consciously turned Halappanavar into a symbolic victim – of Ireland’s backwardness on abortion, of the Catholic Church, of misogyny. Like all symbolic victims, she is referred to simply by her first name, Savita, and her smiling face adorns the placards held up by concerned pro-choice activists on protests-cum-vigils. She has been turned into a symbol of downtrodden Irish womanhood, with activists telling us that this could be “your sister, your mother, your daughter, your aunt, your friends, your colleagues”. “These are the lives at stake”, we are told. “We are all Savita Halappanavar.”

Yet this pretty opportunistic playing of the victim card does not accord with reality. The fact is that it is mercifully rare for a woman in Ireland to die as a result of being denied an abortion. Indeed, it is the uniqueness of Halappanavar’s case that makes it so standout shocking. For the most part, women in Ireland who want an abortion travel to England to get one (around 4,000 do this every year) and then return home to continue with their lives. This is a huge inconvenience, and it is an outrage that Irish women are still denied abortion services in their own country; but it is simply not the case that Irish women are dying “at the hands of misogynists”.

The post-Halappanavar playing of the victim card doesn’t only misrepresent Ireland as a Third World country or as a woman-hating theocracy – it also fundamentally transforms the idea and meaning of abortion rights. In elevating the patheticness of your average Irish woman, who is apparently one unwanted pregnancy away from dying a gruesome death like Halappanavar’s, pro-choice activists depict abortion as something women need to alleviate their vulnerabilities rather than something which will allow them to further realise their autonomy. That is, abortion comes to be treated purely as an emergency public health measure, one that can “save women’s lives”, rather than as a libertarian concern.

More and more pro-choice activists now depict women who seek abortions as vulnerable, even as the hapless victims of circumstance who need the state to protect and care for them. Commentators refer to abortion-seekers as “vulnerable women”, who sometimes come from “the needy poor”, and who have found themselves in “the worst circumstances”. There are “the neediest women in our society”, apparently. Some pro-choice groups even suggest that there should not be a loud or rowdy public debate about abortion, because, in the words of Marie Stopes International, “the last thing vulnerable women need is a culture war over abortion”. In short, so vulnerable are the women who seek abortions that even treating abortion as a political issue – which is fundamentally what it is, pertaining, as it does, to women’s equality and liberty – is a potentially harmful thing.

This patronising view of women who seek abortions is being intensified on the back of the Halappanavar case. Activists are being encouraged to write to Irish politicians to call on them to “legislate to protect women’s lives”.

Not only is this depiction of abortion inaccurate (a great number of the British and Irish women who have abortions are not vulnerable at all, but rather are mothers or students or career women who know full well what they want to do with their lives); more depressingly, it exploits Victorian-sounding horrors stories about destitute women suffering terrible hardships as a way of putting moral pressure on the authorities to force through some kind of abortion law. That is, it implicitly downplays women’s capacity to exercise moral autonomy by depicting them as constantly “at risk”, as vulnerable beings who need to be rescued by the state rather than as individuals who should be liberated from the state’s criminalisation of abortion.

The end result in Ireland could be the introduction of narrow and specific legislation in relation to the X case, which will officially, rather than just unofficially, grant women the right to abortion if their life is in real or substantial danger. That will be useful for the mercifully tiny numbers of women who, like Savita Halappanavar, find themselves in such a dire situation. But it won’t be of much use for the vast majority of Irish women, who need the complete decriminalisation of abortion in order that they might more fully determine their destinies free from the diktats of the state and assorted modern moralists.