Irish abortion debate reignited by pregnant woman's death

Savita Halappanavar's husband claims dying wife was refused termination because 'Ireland is Catholic'

BY Tim Edwards
LAST UPDATED AT 13:54 ON Thu 15 Nov 2012

THE DEATH of a 31-year-old pregnant woman who was reportedly refused a termination by doctors despite the fact she was miscarrying has reignited the debate on abortion in Ireland.

Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia a week after checking into University Hospital Galway. She had back pain and was found to be miscarrying, but, says her husband, she was refused a termination because the foetus's heart was still beating.

Praveen Halappanavar says staff at the hospital told his wife that "Ireland is a Catholic country".

Two investigations are now being carried out into the circumstances surrounding her death: one by University Hospital and one by Health Service Executive's national incident management team.

Ireland's abortion laws "are a mess and have been for 20 years since what was called the 'X case'", says the BBC's Shane Harrison.

'X' was a 14-year-old schoolgirl who became pregnant and suicidal after being raped. She went to court in 1992 after she was prevented not only from having an abortion, but also from travelling abroad to do so.

The Irish Supreme Court eventually ruled in X's favour, saying that while the mother and child both had a right to life, the risk of suicide was grounds for a termination.

The ruling led to the current Irish Medical Council's guidance on the issue: "Abortion is illegal in Ireland except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother. Under current legal precedent, this exception includes where there is a clear and substantial risk to the life of the mother arising from a threat of suicide."

Harrison explains that the ruling did nothing to provide certainty to doctors regarding when an abortion could be carried out lawfully – and no government has yet legislated to change the situation.

He concludes: "Politicians privately admit this is due to a belief on their part that people in the Irish Republic don't want abortion in Ireland as long as there's a British solution to the country's abortion problem."

But a change in that attitude seems inevitable given the depth of feeling over Halappanavar's death. Dearbhail McDonald writes in the Irish Independent: "It's hard to explain the depth of anger and sorrow Savita's death has ignited in me - a visceral rage that has reduced me, and many of my friends, to tears of exasperation and despair. All of us thinking: that could have been me."

McDonald reminds readers of the late Supreme Court Judge Niall McCarthy, who berated politicians over their "inexcusable failure" to introduce appropriate laws with regard to abortion.

The Irish Examiner says that while it may be premature to come to a definitive judgment, "what seems undeniable is that this is a tragedy which should have been preventable". The paper accuses parliament of "shirking its responsibility to provide legislative clarity on the issue", concluding: "The Halappanavar case is a terrible tragedy which reflects badly on Irish politics, the HSE, and Irish society generally."

Not everybody believes Ireland needs to rush into action. David Quinn, in the Irish Independent, notes: "The British media, in tandem with the Irish, is running with the 'woman dies because she was denied abortion' story headline.

"In Britain it fits in with a certain stereotype of this country to believe that women are dying here because of our lingering adherence to Catholic medical ethics."

However, says Quinn, "We simply do not know for certain at this stage whether Mrs Halappanavar would have died no matter what was done. This is what the investigation into her death will ascertain." He observes that Ireland's maternal death rate is lower than the British rate.

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I am a Catholic and I don't beleive in abortion..but thats me.
If my life was on the line I to would have the abortion.
If a woman wants to have a abortion thats her choice not the church,Politians, or Catholic Doctors, none of these peole are ''GOD '' . What happened in Galway, Ireland, is one should have to die when they are having a miscarriage and the the life of the mother is on the line.
Where is Mary Robinson......when the women of Ireland need her.She was a great President of Ireland and tried to change many laws including Devorce for Catholics in Ireland.

What a sad, sickening irony that the doctors saw fit to play God by saying that only God can give or take away life........ To duck a decision by pointing out that the foetus still had a heartbeat beggars (rational) belief - the mother was miscarrying, at 17 weeks, so the foetus would not survive............. the doctors weren't protecting the life of the child, the only thing they were doing was endangering the mother.
By their own rationale of letting God's will be His will - I assume these same doctors would never turn off a life support system.....?
If a country wants to subjugate women - then do it openly, don't hide behind an outmoded and increasingly irrelevant branch of Christianity.

"What a sad, sickening irony that the doctors saw fit to play God by
saying that only God can give or take away life........ To duck a
decision by pointing out that the foetus still had a heartbeat beggars
(rational) belief - the mother was miscarrying, at 17 weeks, so the
foetus would not survive............. the doctors weren't protecting the
life of the child, the only thing they were doing was endangering the
mother. "

While I can agree with your sentiments, this is not quite the issue here. The simple fact is that regardless of medical outcome every doctor in Ireland performing an abortion in Ireland for whatever reason leaves him/herself open to a legal action from one of the litigous (and still quite powerful) Pro-Life groups. If that doctor loses due to the slightest breach of protocol (with an emergency happening in the middle of the night) they could lose their ability to practice medicine in any form for the rest of their lives & with a legal bill of millions. What doctor in their right mind would risk that? If they don't point out the foetal heartbeat, it may well be pointed out to them later in a court of law by some "pro-life" lawyer.

I completely understand, but the point made countless times on the radio, TV and elsewhere today has been that the doctors said that as there was a heartbeat they would not intervene. With a precedent set by the 1992 'X' case, they could equally have decided that Savita Halappanavar was in grave danger if they left her to miscarry a 17-week foetus, and performed an emergency abortion. If they truly felt they were hidebound by Irish law, surely that would have been the reason they gave for denying her request? They weren't and it wasn't. Sadly.

We dont know they said that, we cant know that. The point i'm making is that is such a situation, if you make the "wrong" decision then you could quite easily lose everything as there are still plenty of "pro-life" groups prepared to take legal action. As has been quoted already by some of them "we know abortion is always wrong" so for example, if they had aborted the foetus & the poor lady died anyway (despite their best efforts) the pro life movement would quite likely have taken an action (on behalf of the unborn of course) & it's anybodys guess how that could end up. This means that in the middle of the night with nobody available to consult, the doctors err on the side of self proeservation & medical decisions are profoundly influenced by the fear of legal action from those who " know that abortion is always wrong" but never agree that sometimes it may be the lesser of two evils.

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