What Should We Learn from Tamara and Savita?
Tuesday, November 20, 2012Tweet
I am always hesitant to talk about abortion because it is a topic about which few people can talk calmly and reasonably, and it is calm, reasonable discussion on big topics that we celebrate here on this blog. It seems to be a topic on which it is difficult to get any information without some kind of spin, any story without having it put into place as part of a larger, politicized narrative. It tends to make people ignore whatever the particular message about it is and instead begin immediately screaming at each other, fighting the same battles over language, rights, politics, and beliefs that have been fought over and over and over again.
Yet I couldn't help but be struck by the similarities, and the stark contrast, between two stories I read recently.
First, there is Tamara Mann, a Jewish woman in the United States. She was told that her baby was forming in such a way that it would not live much longer. Originally she was holding out for a miracle, but then her doctor told her that the fetus was "not compatible with life," would not survive, and would cause greater risks to her health the longer she waited for the fetus to be taken out of her body. Because it still had a heartbeat, however, the state considered her to be having a voluntary abortion, though, as it turned out, the baby's heartbeat had stopped before the procedure began.
Second, there is Savita Halappanavar, a Hindu woman in Ireland. She was admitted to the hospital in pain at 17 weeks pregnant and found to be having a miscarriage. Savita asked if, since the baby was dying, labor could be induced so she would stop being in pain. She was told that because the fetus still had a heartbeat, it could not be removed. Irish law and legal precedent only allows termination of a pregnancy if there is a "real and substantial risk" to the life of the mother, and evidently the doctors did not consider there to be enough risk to her life. Savita began developing shakes, shivering, and vomiting, but was still told that the fetus could not be removed. Three days after she was admitted, after the baby's heartbeat had finally stopped, it could be surgically removed. Savita died shortly thereafter from a form of blood poisoning and an E.coli infection. Her death has sparked protests against Ireland's abortion laws. Whether she would have lived, had the pregnancy been terminated upon her arrival to the hospital, is being hotly debated between pro-life and pro-choice groups.
There are a lot of similarities between the two stories.
Both woman were married and wanted children; they were requesting to end their pregnancies not because their pregnancies were unwanted, but because they had been told that their babies were not going to survive, at which point they feared for their own health.
In both cases they were told that the fetus, even if it would not survive much longer, was considered alive so long as it had a heartbeat; both babies were eventually removed from their mother's wombs after their heartbeats had stopped.
Both women ran up against a system that wanted to stop them from getting an abortion: Tamara had to fight for her insurance company to cover the procedure, even though her doctor had told her it was the best option for her own personal health and safety, and then the state required her to sign a consent form because her abortion was considered an elective or voluntary one. Savita was denied the abortion until the baby's heartbeat stopped because an act passed in 1861 in Ireland meant that a doctor could potentially fact life imprisonment for performing an abortion that he or she could not prove was absolutely necessary to save Savita's life.
In both cases the laws that hindered or stopped them from getting an abortion were based on religious tenets to which the woman did not personally ascribe.
The stark contrast, of course, comes in the eventual fate of each woman: Tamara, who lived to tell her own story, and Savita, who died and whose story is now being fought over by other people.
I've shared my thoughts before on why I don't think laws are the best course of action for reducing the number of abortions. These stories are, for me, another reason why debates about abortion should not be reduced to legal language or statistics. People's lives, and their decisions, are never simple, are never black-and-white. When we base our arguments on stereotypes or technicalities or even what we consider fundamental truths about life, we risk losing sight of the living, breathing people whose pregnancies, whose children, we are arguing about.
At their cores, I believe that the pro-life movement is not about dismissing women's health but about deeply loving the unborn, and I believe that the pro-choice movement is not about hating children but about caring deeply about women. And I think it's important for everyone who wants to talk about this issue to stay grounded in that love and compassion from which their own position stems.
In particular, I think there's something wrong if you hear Savita's story and your first thought is either "This is why we need to change abortion laws" or "There is no medical evidence that an abortion would have saved her life." Would not a person grounded in love and compassion think first about Savita, lying in a hospital bed, in pain, grieving that her first child will not live, fearful of what will happen to her body, and feeling trapped by laws made by someone else's religion? What good can come out of forgetting her humanness and immediately reducing her to an argument or a statistic?
The reason why the abortion debate matters is because it's about real people. Let's not forget those real people in our rush to be right.