A woman in Ireland denied a medically necessary abortion during an eventually fatal miscarriage last month has sparked off not only an investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death but also the country’s stance on a procedure that is legal in most other Western countries.
Indian woman Savita Halappanavar, 31, sought an abortion in Ireland in the midst of a traumatic and ultimately deadly miscarriage during a wanted pregnancy. Halappanavar, a dentist, was 17 weeks pregnant when she was hospitalized on October 21 in Galway.
What happened next is heartbreaking illustration of the impact of Ireland’s abortion laws, where women who choose to terminate a pregnancy can safely (albeit expensively) travel to England to do so — but those who suffer a sudden and life-threatening complication can die even while in the hands of doctors.
The woman in Ireland denied an abortion was treated at University Hospital Galway where young widow Praveen Halappanavar explains that the heartbreak of the miscarriage was followed by the loss of his wife, a death he believes was preventable. Halappanavar explains that his wife sought an abortion in Ireland only to save her life, and that doctors refused to intercede because a fetal heartbeat was still detectable:
“It was her first baby, first pregnancy and you know she was on top of the world basically … She was so happy and everything was going well, she was so excited … On the Saturday night everything changed, she started experiencing back pain so we called into the hospital, the university hospital.”
Praveen Halappanavar continues:
“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby … When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning, Savita asked if they could not save the baby, could they induce to end the pregnancy? The consultant said: ‘As long as there is a fetal heartbeat, we can’t do anything.’”
As Savita’s condition worsened, he says, her pleas for help were refused at the hospital:
“Again on Tuesday morning … the consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic,’ but they said there was nothing they could do.”
On Wednesday, the fetus died and was surgically removed. Soon after, Savita Halappanavar was sedated, suffering from blood poisoning, and she passed away on October 28. Two days later, an autopsy was carried out to determine whether the woman seeking an abortion to save her life in Ireland could possibly have survived had she been treated.
In response to the controversy, anti-abortion group Precious Life issued a statement that read in part:
“Ireland’s laws protecting unborn babies do not pose a threat to women’s lives, according to the obstetricians and gynaecologists who care for women every day.”
However, it would seem that the death of Savita Halappanavar proves otherwise, and three investigations into the refusal to grant a potentially life-saving abortion in Ireland have been launched in the wake of her death.