Shameful lack of urgency on abortion persists

Shameful lack of urgency on abortion persists.


OPINION : The response to the Savita case tells us women’s lives don’t merit speedy action

Five weeks have passed since Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death in an Irish hospital. While much has been written on the circumstances, not much has been said about the messages conveyed by the story to the women of Ireland, and the further contextualisation of those messages in the wider debate on women’s reproductive rights.

The last five weeks have witnessed not, as should be expected in a civilised country, decisive action to protect women’s lives, but a continuation of the shameful 20-year tradition of political inaction that has prevailed in Ireland at least since the X case.

The Government did not see fit to introduce emergency hospital guidelines, motions or legislation, or support the efforts of others in introducing such measures. Instead, it announced that it would not be “rushed” into action, and allowed itself two weeks to read the expert group’s report – all of this despite the death of a woman, and despite the testimony of several maternity hospital masters highlighting the need for legal clarity to save women’s lives.

Now that the findings of the expert group have been made public, our leaders have promised to decide on future action by Christmas, two months after Savita’s death What are Irish women to take from this tardiness and utter lack of urgency? The message seems clear: women’s lives don’t merit speedy action, as they are expendable.

Equally, the messages from some mainstream media have been unsettling and disturbing. After the story emerged, current affairs and political chat shows thrashed out issues ranging from the legal framework needed to save women’s lives to the practicalities doct- ors face in their daily work.

While such questions require medical, political or legal expertise, it is inconceivable such expertise should not be set alongside the first-hand knowledge of women who have found, or might find, themselves in positions similar to Savita Halappanavar’s.

Women of reproductive age were largely absent as experts in these debates, as were women who have had terminations, or who were denied them. Again, the message was clear: your first-hand knowledge of being pregnant, of having terminations, of being refused terminations, of enduring complications during pregnancy, of your right to health and life, are of little relevance to this debate.

This sidelining of women as experts can be read as part of the more general exclusion of women from news media, as shown in research conducted by the national women’s council and by the Global Media Monitoring Project.

It can also be read as an indicator of entrenched assumptions about women’s epistemological status, as women are frequently dismissed as experts, even on topics that only they have first-hand experience of.

The history of philosophy is littered with examples of the denigration of women’s reasoning capacities. Outgrowths of this delegitimising of women as authoritative knowers persist, and what philosopher Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic injustice” perhaps most aptly captures the marginalisation of women immediately affected by this debate on abortion.

She argues that members of historically disadvantaged groups experience “testimonial injustice”, ie injustice due to lack of recognition of people as believable sources of knowledge due to prejudices against them. From this initial wrong, other injustices usually follow.

In this instance, the exclusion of women directly affected by the issue of abortion results in distorted public debate on the issue. Moreover, it limits women’s ability to influence political discourse, and hence our capacity to influence decisions that will – or will not – be taken about our lives, our health, our bodies.

We need to be able to change the messages we’ve been receiving from Government and some media, and to influence the debate. Hence, we have to be included as authoritative knowers in discussions concerning us.

Never again should our knowledge of what is best for us be undermined and denigrated – not in a report recommending multiple, more “expert” overseers before the granting of a termination; nor in media debates on our lives and wellbeing; and certainly not in a hospital while pleading for medical treatment.

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