When Pro-Life Means Death

Did Irish abortion laws kill a young Indian woman?

11.16.12 11:00 AM ET

This week, thousands of people gathered outside the Irish Parliament to protest the death of a young pregnant woman who died in a hospital from blood poisoning after doctors refused to perform a life-saving abortion, reportedly on the grounds that “this is a Catholic country.”

Since the death of Savita Halappanavar on Oct. 28, outrage in Ireland and the rest of the world has steadily gathered force, and on Wednesday, demonstrators outside Parliament held candles as a minute’s silence was observed to commemorate the 31-year-old. Some wept while others expressed anger. “I have a heartbeat too!” one sign read.

On Oct. 21, the Indian-born woman went to Galway University Hospital with a back pain. She was 17 weeks pregnant. At the hospital, doctors told her that she was miscarrying but that the ordeal would be over in a few hours. Instead, according to her husband Praveen, Savita went on to endure four days of “agony” during which time she asked repeatedly that the pregnancy be terminated.

Doctors, however, told her that because there was still a fetal heartbeat, Irish law would not permit the termination of the pregnancy, he said, and that, “this is a Catholic country.” Savita protested, telling doctors, according to her husband, that “I am neither Irish nor Catholic.” But was told again that there was nothing medical staff could do while the fetal heartbeat remained.

The next day, Savita became visibly ill, shivering and vomiting, and the fetal heartbeat stopped during the following afternoon. Doctors then removed the fetus and Savita was taken to intensive care where she deteriorated rapidly, suffering multi-organ failure a few days later, dying in the early hours of Oct. 28. She had contracted a form of blood poisoning as well as an E. coli infection, a pathologist found.

Speaking from Karnataka in southwest India, where he had taken the body of his young wife to be cremated, Praveen was adamant that if Savita’s pleas for a termination had been listened to, she would have survived.

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

The appalling events, first revealed in The Irish Times on Nov. 14, have led Irish news bulletins and have been reported across the world, catapulting the most divisive issue of Irish life—abortion—right to the top of the public and political agenda, exactly where the Irish government doesn’t want it.  

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 allowed for protections for pregnant women seeking information about abortion services abroad and wishing to travel for abortions. A High Court ruling in 1992 also stated that abortion was legal in cases where there was a threat to the life of the mother—and not simply the health.

The fussy legal language complicates what is sometimes a life-or-death situation. In Savita’s case, the fetus had a heartbeat, though it would clearly not live. At the same time, the mother’s health was clearly at risk but the doctors ran the risk of prosecution if they intervened and terminated the pregnancy.

Coincidentally, a report commissioned last year about how the government should respond to a European Court of Human Rights ruling obliging Ireland to provide abortions in situations when a woman’s life is threatened, was submitted the evening before news of Savita's death broke.

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The larger of the two government parties, Fine Gael, has said it will not countenance legal abortion in Ireland. The smaller, the Labour Party, is avowedly pro-choice.

Solving what has become a political and, more significantly, a moral morass will be paramount for the government in the coming days. Both domestically and internationally, pressure has been mounting. Expressing its concern over the case, the Indian government has said it will closely monitor the two investigations into Savita’s death, which were announced this week by the Irish authorities.

In solidarity with the Halappanavar family, a demonstration calling for improved legislation is planned to take place this weekend in Dublin. It is expected to be one of the largest demonstrations on the streets of the Irish capital in decades.