The debate over legalizing abortion in Ireland flared Wednesday after the government confirmed that a woman in the midst of a miscarriage was refused an abortion and died in an Irish hospital after suffering from blood poisoning.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny said he was awaiting findings from three investigations into the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian woman who was 17 weeks pregnant. Her case highlighted the legal limbo in which pregnant women facing severe health problems can find themselves in predominantly Catholic Ireland.
Ireland’s constitution officially bans abortion, but a 1992 Supreme Court ruling found the procedure 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.
The vast bulk of Irish women wanting abortions, an estimated 4,000 per year, simply travel next door to England, where abortion has been legal on demand since 1967. But that option is difficult, if not impossible, for women in failing health.
Halappanavar’s husband, Praveen, said doctors at University Hospital Galway in western Ireland determined she was miscarrying within hours of her hospitalization for severe pain Sunday, Oct. 21. He said over the next three days, doctors refused their requests for an abortion to combat her surging pain and fading health.
The hospital declined to say whether doctors believed Halappanavar’s blood poisoning could have been reversed had she received an abortion rather than waiting 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 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 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 said.
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, Savita was placed under sedation in intensive care with blood poisoning and he was never able to speak with her again, her husband said. By Saturday, her heart, kidneys and liver had stopped working. She was pronounced dead early Sunday, Oct. 28.
The couple had settled in 2008 in Galway, where Praveen Halappanavar works as an engineer at the medical devices manufacturer Boston Scientific. His wife was qualified as a dentist but had taken time off for her pregnancy.