Irish abortion laws and the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar

Controversy over Ireland’s abortion laws has exploded world-wide after a 31-year-old woman died on October 28 of blood poisoning, having miscarried her 17-week-old fetus. Savita Halappanavar’s husband says that Irish doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy—which may or may not have allowed for the reversal of her blood poisoning—after detecting a fetal heartbeat, allegedly telling the couple, “This is a Catholic country.” From the AP:

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. …

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. …

He said his wife vomited repeatedly and collapsed in a restroom that night, but doctors wouldn’t terminate the fetus because its heart was still beating.

The fetus died the following day and its remains were surgically removed. Within hours, Praveen Halappanavar said, his wife was placed under sedation in intensive care with systemic blood poisoning and he was never able to speak with her again. By Saturday her heart, kidneys and liver had stopped working and she was pronounced dead early Sunday, Oct. 28.

Several investigations into exactly what happened in Halappanavar’s case are underway, but one fact seems clear, according to pro-life observers: this tragic death wasn’t the result of medical personnel following Irish abortion laws, but of a failure to adhere to established medical protocol. Writing for the UK Catholic Herald, William Oddie argues:

This is a case which clearly needs looking at closely; on the face of it, a refusal to save Mrs Halappanavar’s life by inducing her unborn child, when it was clear that her death would in any case lead to the death of the child (this in fact happened in this case), does not seem to be consistent either with Catholic moral theology or, it is now being claimed, with Irish law or the guidelines which govern medical practice in such cases. …

The fact is, however, that this tragic death by no means justifies any change to Irish law — or medical practice, if it is properly carried out according to Irish Medical Council guidelines. Eilís Mulroy has a comment piece today, also in The Irish Independent, under the headline “Pro-choice side must not hijack this terrible event”, asking the obvious question: “Was Ms Halappanavar treated in line with existing obstetrical practice in Ireland? In this kind of situation the baby can be induced early (though is very unlikely to survive). The decision to induce labour early would be fully in compliance with the law and the current guidelines set out for doctors by the Irish Medical Council.

“Those guidelines allow interventions to treat women where necessary, even if that treatment indirectly results in the death to the baby. If they aren’t being followed, laws about abortion won’t change that. The issue then becomes about medical protocols being followed in hospitals and not about the absence of legal abortion in Ireland.”

Ireland’s leading pro-life organization, the Pro-Life Campaign, also criticized those who are calling for a revision of Irish abortion laws in light of Halappanavar’s death:

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 recognised 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.

More to come, as the investigations into what exactly happened—and, undoubtedly, calls for legal action—continue.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Catherine Harmon 578 Articles
Catherine Harmon works in the marketing department for Ignatius Press.