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Woman Dies After Being Denied Abortion: When Religious Rules Trump Science

Ireland's anti-choice policies lead to a woman's death, and to domestic and international outcry.

Picture received from the Irish Times on November 14, 2012 shows Indian national Savita Halappanavar, who died after allegedly being refused a termination of her pregnancy at a hospital in Galway, western Ireland.
Photo Credit: Via Irish Times


Savita Halappanavar, who died in Ireland after being denied a pregnancy termination, was a young wife eager to have more children when she learned that her pregnancy went wrong.

A Hindu, she organized celebrations for her expat community in Galway, one of Catholic Ireland’s more liberal cities.

Even as she begged the hospital to abort her doomed pregnancy, suffering and in horrible pain, they refused to do so until the fetal "heartbeat" faded away, telling her, “this is a Catholic country.”

From the Irish Times article, here is her husband’s account of the tragedy:

“Savita...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 foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’....

The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.

“That evening she developed shakes and shivering and she was vomiting. She went to use the toilet and she collapsed. There were big alarms and a doctor took bloods and started her on antibiotics.

“The next morning I said she was so sick and asked again that they just end it, but they said they couldn’t.”

Listen to the Times’ full interview with her husband here.

Dr. Jen Gunter blogged from a doctor’s perspective about what she thinks must have happened:

As there is no medically acceptable scenario at 17 weeks where a woman is miscarrying AND is denied a termination, there can only be three plausible explanations...

1) Irish law does indeed treat pregnant women as second-class citizens and denies them appropriate medical care. The medical team was following the law to avoid criminal prosecution.

2) Irish law does not deny women the care they need; however, a zealous individual doctor or hospital administrator interpreted Catholic doctrine in such a way that a pregnant woman’s medical care was somehow irrelevant and superseded by heart tones of a 17 weeks fetus that could never be viable.

3) Irish law allows abortions for women when medically necessary, but the doctors involved were negligent in that they could not diagnose infection when it was so obviously present, did not know the treatment, or were not competent enough to carry out the treatment.

This is the reality of "pro-life" policy. No life for the mother. No life for the fetus. No life for the other children she had or might have had. The only thing living on in such a situation is the self-righteousness of patriarchal rules.

The consequences of breaking rules is no joke; the Catholic hierarchy memorably  excommunicated a nun who consented to a life-saving abortion for a young patient in Arizona, garnering outrage on this side of the Atlantic.

Ireland has been in a legal conundrum for years, since the 1992 “X case” around a distraught young woman, the victim of assault. The case established that Ireland’s policy must permit the ending of pregnancies that threatened the life--not the health, the life--of the mother. But nothing has changed. Since then, Irish and European human rights courts have seen many other cases designed to force implementation of this law.

The legal editor of the Irish Independent begged her government to create clear rules for medical professionals:

As a result of the X case, abortion is permissible in Ireland if it is established that there is a real and substantial risk to the life -- as distinct from the health -- of the mother which can be avoided only by the termination of the pregnancy.

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