The debate over legalizing abortion in Ireland flared Wednesday after the government confirmed a miscarrying woman suffering from blood poisoning was refused a quick termination of her pregnancy and died in an Irish hospital.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny said he was awaiting findings from three investigations into the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian living in Galway since 2008 who was 17 weeks along in her pregnancy. The 31-year-old’s case highlights the bizarre legal limbo in which pregnant women facing severe health problems in predominantly Catholic Ireland can find themselves.
Ireland’s constitution officially bans abortion, but a 1992 Supreme Court ruling found it should be legalized for situations when the woman’s life is at risk from continuing the pregnancy. Five governments since have refused to pass a law resolving the confusion, leaving Irish hospitals reluctant to terminate pregnancies except in the most obviously life-threatening circumstances.
University Hospital Galway in western Ireland declined to say whether doctors believed Halappanavar’s blood poisoning could have been reversed had she received an abortion rather than wait for the fetus to die on its own. In a statement it described its own investigation into the death, and a parallel probe by the national government’s Health Service Executive, as “standard practice” whenever a pregnant woman dies in a hospital. The Galway coroner also planned a public inquest.
Savita Halappanavar’s husband, Praveen, said doctors determined that she was miscarrying within hours of her hospitalization for severe pain on Sunday, Oct. 21. He said that over the next three days doctors refused their requests for a termination of her fetus to combat her own surging pain and fading health.
“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby,” he told The Irish Times in a telephone interview from Belgaum, southwest India. “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.”‘
“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,” Praveen Halappanavar was quoted as saying.
UPDATE: Irish pro-life groups have responded to this story:
Dr Ruth Cullen of the Pro Life Campaign said:
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the husband and family of Ms Savita Halappanavar who died from pregnancy related complications.
It is deplorable that those who want to see abortion available here are exploiting Mrs Halappanavar’s tragic death when the Medical Council Guidelines are very clear that all necessary medical treatment must be given to women in pregnancy. Given this, we welcome the fact that a thorough investigation to establish what went wrong is taking place. It is also vitally important to acknowledge at this time that Ireland, without induced abortion, is recognized by the UN and World Health Organisation as a world leader in protecting women in pregnancy and is safer than places like Britain and Holland where abortion is widely available.”
The pro-life group Youth Defense also responded to Halappanavar’s death:
Our thoughts are with the husband and family of Savita Halappanavar at this very difficult time.
This is a tragic loss, and we need to remember that Irish doctors are always obliged to intervene to save the life of a mother – even if that risks the life of her baby.
In fact, the Medical Council are very clear in this regard that their guidelines state that doctors will be struck off if they don’t intervene to save the life of a mother. The result of the investigation into Ms Halappanavar’s death will make the facts known, and journalists have been rushing to pre-empt those investigations when they are not in full possession of the facts.
According to the information that is available, it seems that a delay in administering antibiotics may have been the cause of the septicaemia which tragically led to her death.
Experts commenting on the case have made it clear that in such cases the main concentration of the medical team treating any woman in this situations would be on maintaining her health. “In such situations, you expedite delivery,” one Obstetrician told the Irish Times. Interventions to deal with the cause of the illness are not considered a therapeutic termination of pregnancy, another Dublin-based practitioner told the newspaper.
Ireland’s ban on abortion does not pose a threat to women’s lives, according to the Obstetricians and Gynaecologists who care for Irish women every day. In fact, without abortion, Ireland is one of the safest places in the world for a mother to have a baby, according to the United Nations.
UPDATE II: The Anchoress has more:
Even if you are not well-versed on Catholic teaching, as apparently whoever spoke to the Halappanavars was not, just thinking this one through — if people do that, anymore — should have answered the question. Inducing the delivery of a baby at 17 weeks would likely insure its death (I believe the earliest gestation stage to survive is about 21 weeks) but unlike a dilation and curettage, which destroys the baby in utero (and which would not have been performed at 17 weeks, regardless) an induced delivery still allowed for the longshot of a live delivery — it still would allow for God’s determining hand in this life.
Some may (undoubtedly will) argue (and please do correct me if I am wrong, churchfolk), but my understanding of Catholic teaching is that this inducement could have been performed, and whoever told Savita and her husband that what they were asking for was impossible because of the “Catholic country” frankly did not know what he or she was talking about.
As I say, however, there is no guarantee that an inducement would have saved Savita, if there was an infection that was going unaddressed, in fact the physical stresses involved in delivering the baby after inducement might have sped the infection along.
At the crux of this death and why it happened, are questions about this Galway hospital’s policies and procedures, and whether medical negligence was a contributing factor. I suspect it very much was.