When I was in the third grade at Catholic school, I had to write a book report. I was precocious, and chose "The Cardinal," a popular novel my mother left in our bookcase. The nun who taught me called my mother and yelled at her because the book
November 16, 2012

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When I was in the third grade at Catholic school, I had to write a book report. I was precocious, and chose "The Cardinal," a popular novel my mother left in our bookcase. The nun who taught me called my mother and yelled at her because the book was on the "condemned" list of the church. My mother's sensible response was, "Those things you're worried about probably went right over her head. And if they didn't, then she's old enough to read about them."

One of the story lines in the book was the lead character's sister. He was a priest and the sister ran off to be a flamenco dancer because the Irish Catholic family wouldn't let her marry the Jewish boy she loved. She turns up pregnant by another dancer and fighting for her life. The priest brother tells the doctor to save the baby and let his sister die.

Say what? I may have only been in the third grade, but that just didn't seem right to me. What kind of brother would allow his sister to die to prove some point? That part of the story stayed with me a long time.

And now, there's Savita Halappanavar, whose death in an Irish hospital is also a truly heartbreaking yet infuriating story, a true story. There are few issues that make me more angry than men taking it upon themselves to make this very personal decision for women -- especially when based on the politics of a church whose hierarchy went to the wall to protect child-rapers. Jessica Valenti writes about it in The Nation:

This week, the first American study ever to look at what happens to women when they’re denied abortions was released. It’s a fascinating, but not all that surprising, read. The research shows women who seek out abortions and are unable to obtain them fare significantly worse over time than women who are able to procure the procedure. Women who are denied abortions are more likely to end up on welfare, more likely to stay in abusive relationships, and more likely to be emotionally distressed over their pregnancy outcome.

Women’s lives suffer when they are forced to carry pregnancies. I thought I was angry when I read this research. But then I heard about Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, whose tragic story reminds us of the worst thing that can happen when women are denied abortions.The 31-year-old Indian dentist, who was seventeen weeks pregnant, went to the hospital with severe back pain. Within hours of being admitted, doctors told her she was miscarrying. The law in Ireland—which only allows for abortion if a woman’s life is in danger—prevented Savita from being able to end her pregnancy and her excruciating pain because there was still a fetal heartbeat present.

As Savita’s condition worsened over the course of three days, she and her husband begged doctors to end the doomed pregnancy. They refused, saying “this is a Catholic country.”Savita countered, “I am neither Irish nor Catholic.” Still, she was denied. That night she vomited repeatedly and collapsed in a restroom.The following day, the fetus’s heartbeat finally stopped and it was removed by the doctors. But it was too late. Savita was transferred to the ICU where she died of septic shock.

Savita died in terrible pain, over the course of several days, begging for a medical procedure that would save her life. She was killed—murdered by a law that places women’s humanity beneath that of a fetus.

American women would do well not to dismiss this as a tragedy that could only happen in another country. This is what happens when you legislate something as personal and complicated as pregnancy. How do doctors decide when a woman is close enough to dying to give her an abortion? Or to what degree does a woman’s health need to be at risk?

I had a life-threatening pregnancy. I was lucky to be far enough into my pregnancy that I was able to deliver my daughter—had it been just a few weeks earlier, I would have been forced to end the pregnancy to save my life. I went into an emergency C-section with my blood pressure rapidly escalating and my liver failing. If there were a law trumping the rights of my fetus over my own, what would have been considered a reasonable risk for me to take? Undergoing a liver transplant? Having a few eclamptic seizures?

It’s not just our lives and health that are in danger, but our human dignity. Consider the women in Ireland who suffered as Savita did but lived—put through needless torture in the name of “life.” Or the American women who are denied late-term abortions even when the fetus has no chance of survival—forced to carry dying babies. Or the women with doomed pregnancies who—thanks to draconian ultrasound laws—are made to listen to a nurse describe the organs and details of their dying fetus before being allowed to have an abortion.

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