The tragic story of Savita Halappanavar

Nicola Harvey

The inevitable has happened. A woman has died because she was denied an abortion, in an Irish hospital, that would have saved her life. She was told she could not have one as “this is a Catholic country”.

The fact that over 3,000 women are forced to travel to England or elsewhere in Europe every year to have their pregnancies terminated has been ignored by successive cowardly Governments for decades. But the death Savita Halappanavar in Galway last month, finally, could not be ignored.

Savita Halappanavar, who had been in Ireland with her husband Praveen since 2008, presented at Galway University Hospital at about 9 am on Sunday 21 October. She was 17 weeks pregnant and had severe back pain. She was told she was miscarrying and that it would be over in a few hours. However, according to her husband Praveen, his wife went on to endure four days of “agony” during which time she asked repeatedly that the pregnancy be terminated.

He says that this was refused because the foetal heartbeat remained present, that the legal situation in Ireland did not permit a termination in such circumstances and that “this is a Catholic country”. She protested, he continues: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but again was told there was nothing medical staff could do while the foetal heartbeat remained. She became clearly ill – shivering and vomiting – during the course of Tuesday 23 Oct, he says. The foetal heartbeat stopped in the afternoon of Wednesday, 24 October, the foetus was removed and
Savita was taken to intensive care where she deteriorated rapidly, suffering multi-organ failure on Saturday and dying in the early hours of Sunday 28 October. She had contracted septicemia and an Ecoli infection, a pathologist found.

Needless death

Her husband brought his young wife’s body home to Belgaum in the Karnataka region of south-west of India on 1 November and she was cremated on 3 November. Speaking from India he has been adamant that if Savita’s pleas for a termination had been listened to she would have survived the ordeal.

“How could they leave the womb open for days? It was all in their hands and they let her go. How can you let a young woman go to save a baby who will die anyway? Savita could have had more babies.”

It is galling now to hear the pro-life brigade pontificating about whether a woman has a right to ask for a termination of a pregnancy she cannot carry to term, for whatever reason. As an editorial in the respected Times of India put it: “The ban on abortion therefore ended up taking a life that need not have been lost. How does that square with viewing the ban as pro-life?”

Ireland has among the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. It remains illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, though referendums in 1983 and 1992 have seen some protections for pregnant women seeking information about abortion services abroad and wishing to travel for abortions, inserted into the Constitution. A High Court ruling in 1992 also stated that abortion was legal in cases where there was a threat to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother.

What this amounts to for doctors and women is a legal mess, wherein it remains unclear what a threat to the mother’s life is, as distinct from a threat to her health. It has meant that since 1992 doctors must make judgment calls on whether to intervene in emergency situations such as Ms Halappanavar’s, where an unborn but unviable foetus remains alive, where there is a possible risk to the mother’s life if they don’t intervene, but where they may be prosecuted if they do.

The class dimension

There has always been a class dimension to Irish abortion, with those who can afford to travel being able to access abortion, and those who can’t forced into dire circumstances. In the Halappanavar case, again, we see that a public patient presented at an understaffed hospital and died over a bank-holiday weekend when staffing resources were stretched to the limit. If this young woman had presented to a private consultant things may have been quietly much different. A woman’s choice in that situation may have been listened to.

The Labour Party calls itself a pro-choice party and yet it voted against Clare Daly’s bill to provide for the introduction of legal abortion in Ireland. Fine Gael has said it will not countenance the introduction of legal abortion. The all-party review group report, which we are told sets out the options for the Government in responding to the European Court of Human Rights ruling that Ireland must legislate on the issue, was submitted the night before news of Savita’s death broke.

This simple fact: women’s bodies are women’s bodies, for women to decide how they will be used and what should happen to them, can no longer be ignored.

As we, in our tens of thousands, take to the streets to demand that this no longer be ignored, to demand that there never ever be another Savita Halappavanar, or another X case, or another C case, we will no longer be ignored.

November 20, 2012 - 10:47