An Irish woman has died after she was denied an abortion, even though she was having a miscarriage, because the medical staff found a fetal heartbeat and so would not intervene.
31-year-old Savita Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway on October 21 with severe back pain and nausea. She was found to be having a miscarriage.
When her condition worsened she and her family repeatedly asked that a doctor induce labor so she could be treated. Despite their pleas, staff at the hospital said that Ireland is a “Catholic country” and because they had detected a fetal heartbeat, and that the fetus could not survive on its own, they would not intervene.
“Savita said to her she is not Catholic, she is Hindu, and why impose the law on her.
“But she said ‘I’m sorry, unfortunately it’s a Catholic country’ and it’s the law that they can’t abort when the foetus is live.
“The baby’s heartbeat stopped on the Wednesday.
“I got a call at about half twelve on the Wednesday night that Savita’s heart rate had really gone up and that they had moved her to ICU,” Mr Halappanavar said.
“The doctor told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.” The doctor, he says, said it should be over in a few hours. There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.
“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 foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.
“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.”
Mrs Halappanavar died October 28. An autopsy found that as well as having contracted E Coli she had developed septicemia.
The Republic of Ireland does not allow for abortions except in circumstances where the mother’s life (not health) is directly endangered by allowing a pregnancy to continue, and even then the law is often used as a complete blanket ban. This forces Irish women to seek terminations in England.
While it is important to stress that the full facts of this case are not yet known, based on the consistencies in reporting from various news sources, termination would appear to have not only been warranted in this case but within the law because it could be established there was a direct risk to the mother’s life, as well as the fact that Halappanavar was by the medical staffs’ own diagnosis miscarrying when she was admitted to hospital and that the baby was already going to die regardless of their intervention.
Two investigations are now underway, an internal investigation by the hospital, and an investigation by a specially appointed expert from Ireland’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Halappanavar’s case is being pointed to by rights groups as one of many which show the dangers of Ireland’s institutionalized anti-abortion stance. In the wake of Halappanavar’s case there have been a number of demonstrations and vigils throughout Ireland including a 2000-strong protest in Dublin, with more planned this weekend.
Pro-choice group Choice Ireland said in a statement:
“Today, some twenty years after the X case we find ourselves asking the same question again – if a woman is pregnant, her life in jeopardy, can she even establish whether or not she has a right to a termination here in Ireland? There is still a disturbing lack of clarity around this issue, decades after the tragic events surrounding the X case in 1992.” –Stephanie Lord, Commenting Spokesperson.
The Irish government is still dithering over a 2010 European Court of Human Rights judgement that said it had failed to implement existing abortion laws brought about by the X case in which the Irish Supreme Court established the right of Irish women to have an abortion if her life is at risk, including the risk of suicide.
The government established in January a 14-member panel to make recommendations on how that judgement should affect abortion law, and the findings of the report are due to be disclosed by the Minister for Health, James Reilly, within the next few weeks.
Earlier this year Ireland’s coalition government defeated an attempt to clarify Ireland’s abortion law that would have made clear a risk to a mother’s life is grounds for termination, wherein they cited the government-led review.
Halappanavar’s case has prompted Irish Labour deputy Patrick Nulty to say there is a “pressing and urgent need” for parliament to “show responsibility and legislate” to reform Ireland’s abortion laws.
However, so-called pro-life groups have clamored to downplay this story, with the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Children saying in a statement:
“It is not ethical to induce delivery of an unborn child if there is no prospect of the child surviving outside the womb. At 17 weeks’ pregnancy Mrs Halappanavar’s child was clearly not viable outside the womb, as there is no scientific evidence that unborn children are capable of surviving outside the womb at such a young age. Rather than removing the protection of the womb from unborn children, the ethical response to emergency situations in pregnancy is medical treatment of the mother for the conditions causing the emergency. In the case of infection, this is usually timely administration of antibiotics. It is also not ethical to end the life of an unborn child, via induction or any other means, where the child is terminally-ill.”
This side-steps the ethical issues of staff refusing to treat Halappanavar in case the treatment induced a termination, in effect prioritizing the already doomed fetus over the mother’s welfare.
It is understood that Halappanavar’s family is now considering taking legal action.
This story has garnered international attention, and many within Ireland have expressed how this story has the power to alter the political situation surrounding abortion, with the Irish Independent columnist Shane Coleman saying that Halappanavar’s death “will change our political landscape forever.”
Image credit: UnnarYmir.