GUEST COLUMNIST: Savita Halappanavar became iconic but she hasn’t been legislated for
By Gerard Howlin

THE Calvita Girl is gone and she will likely never return. Once in my youth I searched for her without success.

It is not a quest I intend to go on again. It is not just the bitterness, baldness, or maleness of middle age, though it is all of that. It is the realisation that she was a one-dimensional, cardboard cutout. She apparently stood for something. But she didn’t. Goodness and wholesomeness aren’t fashions, they are values. She was cheap and on the make.

The Calvita Girl, all blonde and unblemished, was a triumph of cheesy marketing over substance. It’s not just that she is gone and we are bereft and blondeless. Worse; if she were ever found she could in future, unless she changed the recipe, only be seen by other children accompanied by a health warning.

At 10.50am in Dáil Éireann today, the Taoiseach will exercise his prerogative to order the business of the House. He will propose that the report and final stages of the Protection of life During Pregnancy Bill be taken. Debate will conclude if it has not already done so by 10pm. Then the division bells will sound. When those bells resound in Leinster House they ring not only in the parliamentary chambers but in the privy chambers as well. There is no escape and no excuse.

Some Fine Gael TDs are expected to risk all, to vote their conscience and against the bill. In truth I admire them, though there are very few with whom I would identify. In the main they seem sincere people who are attempting to make some sense of what otherwise is a senseless legislative mess propelled by a coarse combination of necessity and opportunism.

Contrary to what some of its more wild-eyed opponents allege, this bill will open the floodgates to nothing. It is, as promised by Enda, legally a very narrow and constricted interpretation of a right controversially enunciated by the Supreme Court in the X case under article 43.3.3 of the Constitution.

Only time will tell the numbers of abortions which will be performed under this bill, which vindicates the right of a suicidal woman to have an abortion to save her own life. My own guess is very few. However, several morally gigantic principles are at stake and most if not all of them are being completely ignored.

It is extraordinary that a nation which has so forgotten its manners that it has made listening into the private telephone calls of bankers a public pastime can so glibly and so completely forget Savita Halappanavar. She was no Calvita Girl. She was no cardboard cutout. She didn’t risk her political future — she forfeited her own life. And today her life has been in vain. In pursuit of a controversial and in my view untenable theory that abortion is an answer to suicidality; the real reasons she died are being blatantly ignored.

It is debatable had the care she received not been flawed, if there would ever have been a danger to her life. What is certain is that once her health rapidly deteriorated, an abortion was legally impossible. It will remain so now. Only when the danger to a woman’s health has become a danger to her life, including a threat to her life by suicide, can an abortion be contemplated. From the very beginning it has been absolutely apparent that any law crafted to protect women or children, shoehorned into article 43.3.3 of the Constitution is another mess in the making. So it has proved to be.

Some will blame the Government. I am not so sure. They have after a fashion taken an accurate measurement of the people they have elected to govern. Their answer, in this bill, is not a wrong political calculation; it is just the wrong answer, which, of course, is not nearly as serious as a political mistake.

The one thing that overwhelmingly unites all the main parties is a determination not to put article 43.3.3, and the fundamental question behind it, back to the people. In a historically disastrous calculation, the pro-life movement motivated by the 1973 Supreme Court decision in the McGee case which recognised a right to contraception as a matter of marital privacy moved to constitutionally preempt a similar right to abortion. The eighth amendment to the Constitution was the result. They were warned the outcome would be exactly what it turned out to be in the X case, but they knew best, and besides, God was on their side.

It is extraordinary that as lay and clerical pro-life leaders rapidly if belatedly develop a new and hardly credible sense of individual conscience, not one has paused to apologise for the debacle of the 1983 eighth amendment. It is not true that the past is another country. In Ireland it is present tense.

If the snow on the ditch always melts away, it is astonishing how completely concern for the possible death of one woman because she could not have an abortion and the potential death of others for the same reason has dissipated. From the very beginning the real issue at stake was repeatedly and, as it turns out, fatally mistaken with legislating for the X case, which was never the substantive issue at all.

If that confusion were not enough, the more strident on either side were mistakenly labelled and clamoured to be seen as either liberal or conservatives. In fact what unites the ideologues of the pro-life movement and its main ideological opposition in Fortress Workers Party within the Labour Party is neither liberalism nor conservatism but authoritarianism.

THEY both share a common distrust of the democratic process, except when they can control it. They intuitively hanker after a judicial activism that will deliver for them by legal fiat what they can too seldom deliver democratically. Apparently utterly opposed in their objectives, they are remarkable alike in their love of furtive process and regulatory control. From the moral superiority bestowed on them by their cause party higher-ups and hierarchs alike share the arrogance that they know best.

Their propensity to put their superiority into practice is unrelenting. Sometimes it is a three-line whip, other times it is a sharp tug on the body politic by the grassroots. More refined instruments of obedience include the “informed” conscience and the “free” vote.

Lest we despair today listening and viewing as the news comes out of Leinster House, remember the Calvita Girl. A golden icon of my childhood, that calorie-ridden child could not from Sept 2 be advertised during children’s programmes. Decades later but decades ago I had a gig organising a competition to find her. She never materialised but we since have found time to legislate for her or at least her ilk. The war against fat is on; too late for me. For a moment Savita was iconic. She hasn’t been legislated for. It is too late for her. But no matter; ah sure, it will do.


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