A woman died. A day after Diwali, when the Irish Times had a front page image of a lovely little Indian boy lighting Diwali candles, it had another beautiful Indian face on its front cover, this time of a woman who died in an Irish hospital. Savita Halapanavar has since become a household face, even if we are not entirely certain on how to pronounce her surname, and a symbol of the oppression of women, whose lives and health are put at risk in Ireland’s maternity hospitals.
The minute details of the circumstances of Savita Halapanavar’s death are yet to be ascertained. Savita was in her 17th week of pregnancy, presented at Galway University Hospital with severe pain in her lower back, sent home because the foetus’s heartbeat was sound, came back to hospital with her waters broken, told the foetus’s heartbeat was still sound. When she was still having pains, Savita, clearly aware she was miscarrying, asked for a termination to be told her foetus’s heartbeat was still sound, and, as ‘this is a Catholic country’, she could not have a termination. Her reply that she was not a Catholic, not even Irish, was of little help. Savita suffered until her foetus’s heartbeat was no more, at which stage septicaemia set in and Savita died along with her foetus. And a day after Diwali her picture adorned our screens and newspapers and we held vigils and demonstrations, saying ‘we are all Savita’, declaring ‘never again’ and demanding that the government enacts the long-promised legislation, 20 years after the Supreme Court ruling in the x case, to protect the life of birthing mothers. Abortion was again big news as the ‘Pro Life’ and ‘pro choice’ camps battled it out over Savita’s dead body.
Let me nail my colours to the mast – I am in favour of women having full control over their bodies, including the choice to have an abortion. I am also in support of legislation in this fraught area, ensuring the life and health of mothers, not only of unborn babies. Indeed, I never saw my students so enraged as they joined the pro choice vigils, with slogans saying ‘she had a heartbeat too’.
But something was missing. No one was speaking about Savita’s migrant identity. Remember when other migrant mothers became central to Ireland changing its birth right citizenship entitlements because these mothers were allegedly ‘flooding’ the maternity hospitals, and ‘childbearing against the state’. Like Irish women who, when pregnant outside wedlock, were locked for decades in ‘Magdalen laundries’ in lifelong servitudes to the nuns, their babies sold away for adoption, migrant mothers’ birthing Irish citizens, became a problem, a constitutional ‘loophole’ that had to be plugged by changing the 83-year old birthright citizenship entitlements. Since the 2004 Citizenship Referendum, babies born in Ireland to migrant parents, though still ‘part of the nation’, are no longer citizens.
This is my lament. For a beautiful woman who decided to have a baby in Ireland not to gain citizenship for her baby but because she and her husband were told that Ireland is a ‘good place to have a baby’. They didn’t bank on being met with the racialising attitude of ‘this is Ireland, a Catholic country’ where even if your life is oozing out, you have no chance of a termination to save your life. This is my lament and my apology for this beautiful migrant woman whose trust in Ireland killed her.