To repeat: it was not a tragedy.

To repeat: it was not a tragedy. In saying it was not a tragedy, I’m not trying to preserve a pristine meaning of the word ‘tragedy’, or keep some connection to classical Greek drama.

Lots of people are describing Savita’s death as a tragedy. Clearly, many people are talking about it that way because that’s the word they find that conveys a sense of something both deeply sad and deeply harrowing.

But that is not all there is to it. Last night I watched the Primetime interview with Praveen Halapannavar. Miriam O’Callaghan described the death as tragic, as have many other presenters, panellists, columnists and legislators. Also, the man on the unsolicited anti-abortion robo-call received by thousands of people yesterday describes her death as tragic.

Using the word ‘tragedy’ is not just an expression of empathy. It shapes our perception of what really happened, and how we act as a consequence. Let me give you an example.

Suppose a man is talking about how he killed a woman. He says: I went out to the shed, picked up a hammer, went back into the house, and, tragically, I hit her over the head with a hammer and killed her.

In this example, it’s obvious the man is establishing a narrative, and the use of the word ‘tragically’ is crucial to his narrative. ‘Tragically’ tells the listener that the killer thinks what happened was deeply sad too.

But it also suggests there were forces bigger than the man in operation: he hit her over the head with a hammer because tragic forces impelled him to do so, not because he really wanted to. By using the word ‘tragically’, then, the killer is trying to get himself off the hook. He is trying to extricate himself from the event.

Things are not so simple in the case of Savita Halapannavar’s death. There are no easily identifiable cold-blooded killers: just medical professionals concerned with observing the law, and, according to Praveen Halapannavar himself, often acting with compassion and empathy. So, on the surface, the word ‘tragedy’ seems more appropriate: the professionals were impelled to act the way they did by something bigger than themselves, in this case, the law of the land, and the consequences, apparently unintended, were horrifying and deeply sad.

But this is why we should be all the more wary of the word ‘tragedy’.

Savita was in agonising pain, and distraught at the news she was having a miscarriage. She pleaded repeatedly for an abortion. But she was refused it because of the law in Ireland, which gives equal protection to the life of the woman and the life of the foetus she carries inside her. So doctors refused her request. Even when she said she was not Irish –as her husband recounted last night- those people treating her deemed that she –and they- would still be subject to Irish law. And since the views of the woman count for nothing under current legislation, that meant that her views and wishes counted for nothing here either.

Beyond the responsibility of individuals who treated her and refused her treatment, which still has to be taken into account, we can say Savita was a victim of the structural violence of the Irish State. 

At the very minimum, there was a law and a band of armed men staying the hand of any doctor who might have otherwise treated her, in keeping with her wishes as a human being, and not as a subject of Irish law. So when we accept it was a ‘tragedy’, then, we are saying the law and the band of armed men that backs it up are something bigger than us, something legitimate by virtue of its existence. We are accepting the legitimacy of structural violence.

But we aren’t just accepting it: we are maintaining it.

In a recent article for, Juan Gutierrez describes how

‘structures and cultures maintain themselves upon vast swarms of human beings who build them, make them work, and/or simply assent to them, thus legitimising them. The swarm does this by ignoring, whole or in part, what happens on the inside and what they produce on the outside. Take for instance the law that came into force twelve years or so ago that requires Latin Americans to have a visa to come to Spain: in what interests did it not exist before and in what interests does it exist today? How does it affect the dignity of the children of the madre patria [term frequently used in Latin America to refer to Spain. Literally, motherland]? This question is neither asked, nor are answers sought, by the swarm of people who apply and uphold the law’.

By saying it was ‘a tragedy’ in the particular case of Savita, that it happened because of something bigger than us, we are acquiescing in a particular narrative. It is this narrative that has dominated media coverage to date, including last night’s Prime Time programme.  This narrative entails a couple of important things.

One, it entails, since it was a tragedy, that regardless of our position on abortion, regardless of how we have contributed to applying and upholding the law, and regardless of the questions we have asked or prevented people from asking, we are all very sad, and, if nothing else, united in sadness at just how much of a tragedy it really is. There is a consensus: this is a tragedy (if nothing else).

Two, it entails that doctors and other medical staff acted properly in ignoring her wishes, because it was established by law that a woman’s wishes do not count in this regard. Or, this narrative allows equally for the possibility that the medical staff acted improperly –that is, negligently- in failing to recognise her life was at risk.

But there is no room here for the idea that a woman’s wishes actually count. If we are moved safely along by this narrative, there is no longer any need to ask some pretty basic questions. Such as: is it right, as the law says it is, to ignore women when they request an abortion?  Is it right for the State –and behind it, ‘the people’- to treat women’s bodies as its property? Why should we apply and uphold such a law? Whose interests are served by the fact that we continue to do so?

All broadcast media coverage I have seen so far has ignored these basic questions. It has all been a tacit question of: who cares what she wanted, could she have been kept alive within current legislation? Narrowing things down, on the one hand, to the facts and chronology of the case –to be determined by experts, of course-, and on the other, figuring out what this means for the government.

‘Tragedy’ crowds out other words: like outrage, or injustice. Imagine all the times you have heard or read the word ‘tragedy’ over the last week. Then imagine what it would have been like if instead, at that very point, they had said ‘injustice’, and, instead of ‘tragic’ they had said ‘outrageous’ (imagine what it would have taken for the man on the robo-call to say ‘injustice’).

The point, then, is that talking about tragedy in this case not only initiates a process of letting people off the hook, but it helps to bed down the status quo once again. And that status quo is anti-choice.

We rule through words, but words also rule through us. That’s why it’s so important to pick the right ones.


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2 responses to “To repeat: it was not a tragedy.

  1. Fer

    I am not convinced. Your prejudging the situation with more than one presumption. Its poor and hasty analysis.

  2. Richard

    I’m not convinced by your claim of poor and hasty analysis, given that <br/>you haven’t provided any reason why it’s either hasty or poor.

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