Pro-life does not mean anti-woman

Elsa Maishman 14 April 2015

The recent case of Purvi Patel, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for foeticide and child neglect, has quite rightly triggered an outburst of anger from women’s campaigners all over the world.

I do not think for one minute that the sentence or conviction in question was justified, but it saddens me that in all the global media coverage, I have not come across one journalist who has dared to put forward a case for the rights of the child. According to the University of Maryland Medical Centre, a baby born at aged 28-30 weeks old has up to a 92% chance of survival. Amongst all the outrage, though, however justified that may be, the voice of the unborn – or in this case, the born – has been tossed aside.

In her recent Varsity piece, Louise Banable uses the Patel case to heavily criticise the legislation of countries which afford the unborn human rights, labelling such legislation ‘anti-woman’. She uses the case of Savita Halappanavar who was denied an abortion and later died of septicaemia.

However, later reports and medical testimonies claimed that in this case an abortion would not have cured septicaemia. Section 21.1 of the guidelines of the Irish Medical Council clearly states that abortion is illegal in Ireland except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother. The official investigation identified a number of missed opportunities in the treatment of Savita and recommended that guidelines be developed and clarified such that they deal specifically with the issue of inevitable miscarriage in the early second trimester.

It seems that a combination of medical negligence and a lack of legal clarity led to the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. More could and should have been done to save her life. Even though it remains unclear whether a termination might have helped, this could nonetheless have been carried out under the existing guidelines.

With the second lowest maternal mortality rate in the world, according to 2008 estimates developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and the World Bank, Ireland is renowned for its excellent maternity care and is one of the safest countries in the world in which to give birth. While the case of Savita is incredibly distressing, it is perhaps not quite as scandalous as it initially seemed – though the dissemination of misinformation is so widespread by the media that it scarcely seems fair to criticise others for unknowingly propagating such illusions.

What does horrify me is the fact that so many intelligent students can seriously buy into a rhetoric that brands any legislation not viewing abortion as merely an issue of women’s rights as ‘anti-woman’ or ‘misogynistic’.

Such language is so widely circulated in society that it no longer seems shocking or novel. It is important to have a discussion about the kind of language used by people on both sides of the debate. The topic of abortion is approached with great trepidation; there is still a taboo around the subject.

We need to recognise that all parties are well-meaning rather than resorting to the call of ‘misogyny’. Not only is it inane – according to YouGov polls, more women consistently support a reduction in the legal age limit of abortions than men – but it’s hardly conducive to a sensitive, nuanced discussion about a question of moral philosophy. There is, however, common ground on which everyone agrees: women’s lives matter. Why should some women have to put up with the claim that they’re self-hating ‘misogynists’ because they attribute the unborn with a right to life from the very start of that life?

I look forward to the day when we can finally discuss this highly complex and delicate issue without having to refer to emotive exceptional cases as means of justification, and can instead face each other with fresh, open, and non-judgemental minds. The most important thing we can all do here and now is to make this university a place where students know that they will be supported by their peers whatever their decisions. Whether one absolutely agrees with the viewpoint of another is entirely irrelevant; we owe our friends all the help and love that they need. I also hope that we can continue to expand the resources and help available to student parents in Cambridge so that any woman who chooses to carry her pregnancy to term is able to continue with her studies.

No woman should spend 20 years in prison because she may or may not have had an illegal abortion and neglected a child. But let’s check our facts and check our language before labelling others as ‘anti-woman’, ‘sexist’ and ‘misogynistic’. Such terminology reduces the complexities of the issue to merely a case of women’s rights.

The truth is that all over the world, many countries, including Ireland, recognise this to be an extremely challenging issue which entails a negotiation of the rights of two human beings. Article 4.1 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which currently has 23 active member states across Latin America, states that ‘every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception’. We might argue that the legislation of these governments is wrong, but to claim that their decisions are fuelled by a hatred of women is just not reasonable. However foreign or false the concept of a ‘right to life’ might seem, that is the underpinning reasoning for such legislation.

In the light of the complexities and sensitivity of this subject, we truly need to see a shift of emphasis from confrontation to care and concern. So please, let’s refrain from cries of ‘misogyny’ and focus on practising ‘philogyny’ instead.