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The struggle between control and choice

Posted: December 12, 2012

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Recently in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died of septicemia after doctors refused to remove her 17-month-old fetus, citing the country's anti-abortion law. Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist from India, was miscarrying and repeatedly requested doctors to remove the fetus they said was unviable. However, because the fetus still had a heartbeat, doctors refused to perform the abortion, instead placing Halappanavar in an intensive-care unit as her condition worsened.

Halappanavar's death has since reverberated around the world, prompting protests in India as well as Ireland and reigniting the ethical debate between abortion rights proponents and pro-life activists.

"Legally, the life of the fetus does not take precedence over the life of the mother in [Ireland], but it does take precedence over the health of the mother - a distinction that American abortion opponents have long sought to replicate in the United States," U.S.-based political activist Naomi Wolf wrote in a recent editorial criticizing the theocratic approach to reproductive rights in certain western nations.

Czech society and law is, of course, far more intrinsically secular than many European nations. The country is known for a liberal approach to abortion, sex education and reproductive rights. In past years, it has been a destination for women from more conservative countries such as pervasively Catholic Poland, whose abortion laws are among the strictest in Europe.

Which begs the question of why, one decade after its introduction on the U.S. market, have local health officials still not legalized RU-486, the so-called abortion pill? Surely, the fear of a spike in the abortion rate cannot be a concern in a country whose liberal policies helped drive that rate down from record highs in the late 1980s. Safety concerns also fail to provide a viable explanation. Calling for the drug's regulation, medical professionals warn of the risks associated with RU-486's underground use, already prevalent thanks to the drug's ready availability on the Internet.

A creeping suspicion remains that the real obstacle in the way of the drug's legalization is not given by medical or ethical concerns but pure negligence. Another, even more disturbing possibility is a tacit opposition by doctors anxious to maintain the authority they have enjoyed since communist times, when children - and all matters associated with bringing them into the world - belonged to the state.

If the testing and debate regarding RU-486 use progresses, women in the Czech Republic may finally get access to an alternative procedure that has been available to patients in more conservative Western countries for years. Until then, local women wishing to have an abortion are resigned to vacuum aspiration, a procedure that, in a symbolic sense, requires them to place their fate in the hands of their doctors much in the same way Halappanavar placed her fate in hers.

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