Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Why we fight

Instead of the usual A+ bashing, I want to talk about a story which has exploded in the last few days - a story which perfectly illustrates how toxic, cruel and heartless religion can be, and why it is so important to oppose it and fight for church-state separation.

By now you've probably heard of the death of Dr. Savita Halappanavar, a dentist who died in agony in an Irish hospital after being denied a life-saving abortion following a miscarriage. And if you've missed this story because you've been living on the far side of the moon, read Michael Nugent's article which fills you in on the context and the legal vacuum and political cowardice which allowed this tragedy to happen.

The tl;dr version is that this is a complicated story, decades in the making, which reflects badly on Ireland but is not simply a case of a backward, barbaric country practicing racism against a brown-skinned woman, as some uninformed armchair analysts in other countries are superficially describing it. And if you still think it's all about racism, check out these photos from the massive protests in Dublin and other cities across Ireland in response to this needless death.

The fact is that religion is dying in Ireland faster than just about anywhere else, but for historical reasons the Vatican still has a stranglehold on politics and successive Irish governments have been scared shitless of pissing it off, even after the endless priest child-rape scandals of recent decades. Now the Irish people are erupting in anger, and hopefully the government will finally listen to them.

Some commentators have focused on the phrase "this is a Catholic country" which was apparently said to Dr. Halappanavar's husband as an excuse for not terminating the pregnancy. I don't know the context in which this was said, but I used to have a friend who was a pain nurse in a Catholic hospital in the US. Sometimes she had to deal with terminal patients who were in excruciating pain, but she couldn't treat the pain as aggressively as it needed to be treated, because that would shorten the life of the patient. She was a Catholic herself, but didn't agree with the church's rigid stance on euthanasia. She had to explain to the family why their loved one was in so much pain, and all she could do was tell them: "This is a Catholic hospital." So the remark made to Mr. Halappanavar may have been callous, or it may have been an admission of helplessness.

On the other hand, it may be that the hospital was overly cautious and they could in fact have acted to end the pregnancy without running afoul of the law. Hopefully the investigations which will take place will bring some closure to the case, though that does not relieve the Irish government of its duty to clarify the legal situation. There's an interesting variety of opinions on this Irish Times Letters to the Editor page - from theological sophistry about "ensoulment" and "desoulment" (AKA death) to informed discussions of medical ethics.

This kind of tragedy reminds us that Atheism-plus and its opponents are equally irrelevant - we're all just a bunch of people who spend too much time on the internet, yelling at each other. Meanwhile, thousands of people are taking to the streets of Irish cities on cold winter nights to demand change. Atheists and believers are working together, building coalitions, making their voices heard. People aren't demanding ideological purity and lockstep conformity from each other - they are focusing on the common goal of working for women's rights and health. (Okay, so I had to get a dig against A+ in there. Sue me.)

If the dead, withered claw of Vatican control can finally be pulled from the throat of what was formerly one of the most religious countries in Europe, and a more humane and enlightened law can be put in place, some good will come of this senseless death.

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