The death of a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant at University Hospital Galway last month has created a storm of protest after it emerged that a potentially life-saving termination of her miscarrying pregnancy had been refused.
Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, died of septicaemia. Her husband, an engineer in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the failing pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.
This was refused, he says, because a foetal heartbeat was still present. They were reportedly told, “this is a Catholic country”.
She spent a further two days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped and the dead foetus was removed. Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia, an infection, on the 28th.
Details of the case became public overnight after Savita’s family spoke openly to the Irish media yesterday. Two separate investigations are currently underway at the hospital.
Under Irish law, as clarified by the Supreme Court decision in the 1992 ‘X Case’, terminations are permitted when there is a medical threat to the life of the mother. However, the lack of legislation arising from that decision has created a grey area, with unresolved questions around the legality of the procedure and doctors’ medical liability insurance. It is not yet clear if this contributed to the decision by the hospital to refuse the termination.
In the twenty years since the ‘X’ Case, pro-choice advocates have advocated for the legislation to be passed to allow such terminations. However, a series of 26-County governments have declined to do so, fearing that it could facilitate widespread abortion and antagonise the substantial pro-life constituency of the Irish electorate.
Savita’s husband said his wife had been told that ‘as long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.
“The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country,” he said. “Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.”
He said her condition had sharply deteriorated before the foetal heart had stopped and she was brought to theatre to have the womb contents removed. However, she quickly developed the life-threatening infection and died in subsequent hours.
Her death has provoked outrage across Ireland and internationally.
A candlelit vigil is to be held in Eyre Square in Galway. A protest calling for legislation for abortion when a woman’s life is in danger will be held outside the Dublin parliament at 6pm this evening.
Action on X and Galway Pro-Choice, which both advocate for abortion legislation, called on the government to immediately introduce legislation to end the uncertainty around current practices.
“This was an obstetric emergency which should have been dealt with in a routine manner,” said Rachel Donnelly of Galway Pro-Choice.
“Yet Irish doctors are restrained from making obvious medical decisions by a fear of potentially severe consequences”.