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Ireland’s Shame

In 1992, as a result of being repeatedly raped, a 14 year old girl became pregnant. Her family reported the rape, and resulting pregnancy, and made the decision to travel to the UK so that the girl could have an abortion. Aware that there is a possible need, the family ask the Gardaí if DNA evidence from the foetus will be required, and the question was referred upwards to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and further again to the then Attorney General Harry Whelehan, who, as you might expect, immediately replied to the family to assuage their fears, and reassured them in this difficult time.

Except that this is Ireland, a “Catholic country”, and that’s not at all what Whelehan did. Instead, he demanded that they return to Ireland, without harming the foetus, because a 1983 constitutional amendment reaffirmed the illegality of abortion in Ireland, and sought to further prevent any possible change to allow abortion, by stating that “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” An initial appeal to the High Court proved unsuccessful  because the judge in question ruled that the threat to the life of the unborn was “real and imminent” and the the constitution required the the life of the unborn be protected from this threat. The family appealed, their daughter suicidal at the prospect of having to carry the child to term, and eventually, Whelehan’s decision was overturned in the Supreme Court, with the judges recognising that “a woman had a right to an abortion under Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution if there was “a real and substantial risk” to her life.” The girl miscarried shortly after the judgement.

The X case was resolved in 1992, and since then, there has been a need for legislation to allow abortions to be performed if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother. As yet, almost 20 years later, there is no legislation. Ignoring this need for legislation has led to further cases where women have been put in difficult situations, needing to travel outside the country, and finding themselves unable to receive advice regarding abortion. In all cases, the women needed follow-up medical care, and either did not attend due to uncertainty about the legalities of abortion, or were failed by medical staff who seemed to ingore the fact that they had had abortions.

Today, we learned about Savita Halappanavar, another woman who has been failed by the unclear abortion laws and lack of legislation regarding threats to the life and health of the mother. Her case goes beyond a need for travel, or the inaccessibility of information and follow-up medical care regarding abortion, because on October 28th, as a result of being denied a termination, Savita died.

Savita Halappanavar presented to University Hospital Galway on October 21st, when she was 17 weeks pregnant. She was suffering from back pain, and after examination, was found to be miscarrying. The doctors informed Savita, and her husband Praveen, that her cervix was dilated  that she was leaking amniotic fluid, and that the baby would not survive. The doctors also told them that the miscarriage would be over in a few hours. What followed was three days of severe pain, with Savita exposed to life threatening infection as her cervix remained dilated. After the first day, when it became clear that the miscarriage was not going to be over in a few hours, she asked for a termination. She was informed that they would not carry out the termination, because the foetal heartbeat was still present, and that “this is a Catholic country”.

Savita spent 2 more days in agony, and extremely susceptible to infection, before the foetal heartbeat finally stopped. Only at this point was the foetus removed, and although the procedure was successful  it was far too late for Savita. She died, a week after presenting at the hospital, of septicaemia which had been documented “ante-mortem”, i.e. before her death, and E.Coli (ESBL) infection.  Though Savita had pleaded with the doctors to help her, once it became clear they could not save the baby, her husband says she was repeatedly told that there was nothing they could do because the foetus’ heart was still beating. When told that it was the law, and that this was a Catholic country, Savita pointed out that she was neither Irish nor Catholic, but the doctors maintained that there was nothing they could do, and so, while Savita succumbed to infection, the doctors did nothing.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Seán Brady said that the Chruch would lobby the government if there was any attempt to legislate for abortion, and indeed, on the same days as Savita’s story appeared in The Irish Times, a letter from the Bishop of Killala, John Fleming, reminds us that ” for Catholics is that the life of the unborn can never be taken intentionally”, and that “Ireland, without abortion, is recognised as one of the safest countries in the world to be a pregnant mother.” Fleming also pays lip service to that old chestnut that the law in Ireland wouldn’t prevent a mother getting the care she needed, reminding us that even though we should “Choose Life!”, that “Clearly, if the life of the mother is threatened, by illness or some other medical condition, the care provided by medical professionals will make sure that she receives all the medical care needed.”

Bishop Fleming needn’t worry. Rather than come down on any one side of the abortion debate, our elected officials have been avoiding the matter for over 20 years now, and seem determined to continue doing so. Referring to the impending publication of a report regarding Ireland’s abortion legislation, recently one minister said “I hope that report doesn’t come for 10 years, but it’s coming and we’re going to have to deal with it,” and for me, this neatly encapsulates how our elected officials feel about this issue. Rather than fighting for women’s rights, or attempting to finally resolve the decades long outstanding legislation, they hope that the report doesn’t come, so that they don’t have to deal with it. Rather than seeing the report as an opportunity to codify something which has been missing from our law for an embarrassingly long period of time, they see it as something that they are stuck with, that they must reluctantly deal with.

Abortion in Ireland isn’t a right, and it isn’t a privilege. It isn’t even a choice. It’s a political football to be kicked around at times like these, a hot potato that no party wants to be left holding. The cowardice of our elected officials in ignoring the 1992 X judgement, in hoping that the problem would simply go away if ignored for long enough, is something which should not be forgotten. The A, B, and C cases, the X case, and now Savita; all victims of our compassionate, humane, “Catholic” country.

16 replies on “Ireland’s Shame”

Thats absolutely sickening! Allowing someone to die a slow and painful death of 2 and a half days? I thought doctors took an oath to prevent suffering. This is the kind of story I’d expect read about in a 3rd world theocracy!

Hi there,

Horrible story and very confused by the hospital’s decision here seems as how our current legislation allows for medical abortions when the mother’s life is in danger

Direct quote from current legislation:
“It shall be unlawful to terminate the life of an unborn unless such termination is necessary to save the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother where there is an illness or disorder of the mother giving rise to a real and substantial risk to her life, not being a risk of self-destruction.”

It’s terrible that the hospital did not act to save this mother’s life and I’m glad that Michael Martin is calling for an independent investigation. Hopefully James Reilly isn’t his usual inept self in dealing with this!

This seems to be less to do with the Catholic Church and more to do with a hospital not following our current legislation on abortion which would have avoided this terrible outcome.

Allyson

Just an amendment to the above reference, medical abortion is allowed under our current legislation but the quote I added was incorrect

Inadvertently perhaps I have illustrated the problem the hospital faced?? … our legislation should be made clearer on this…..hate to say it but perhaps another trip to the polls should be on the cards?!

It’s not a trip to the polls that’s needed but some actual political leadership.
Polls are a device by which elected leaders avoid responsibility for decision making and, dare I say, leadership. The election of politicians to act on behalf of a Country’s population is the only poll that should be needed.

The death of Savita Halappanavar should provoke outrage in anyone truly concerned about the health of women.

Hopefully the investigation will shed some light on why Mrs. Halappanavar was refused treatment for miscarriage, when this treatment is regularly administered in this country, and is allowed for by the law and by the Medical Council.

The treatment she needed was legal, so there is no question that a change in the law is what is needed here. It is medical negligence that she was not treated urgently.

In cases where the fetus is still alive, the Medical Council in part 21.4 of its guidelines for medical doctors states that treatment is allowed even if “there is little of no hope of the baby surviving”.

The treatment that Mrs. Halappanavar should have received is legal in this country. In fact, it is standard medical procedure in cases like hers. That she wasn’t treated is a failure of the hospital and medical team, not a problem with the law.

I suspect that the medical council will strike off one or more people because of this and rightly so.

The greatest thing we can do to honour Savita’s life is to insist on obstetric excellence – that is what saves women’s lives, not abortion.

Did I miss something here, or is this whole story based one article in the Irish Times which is based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of the grieving husband who is not medically qualified? It seems premature to be rushing to judgement and calling for doctors to be struck off, without them having any opportunity to give their side.

I don’t think it’s right to call for people to be struck off, and I know that certainly wasn’t the point of my blog post. This whole story isn’t based one the uncorroborated testimony of Savita’s husband, only the part directly dealing with Savita is. The parts about the X case, about the government failing to legislate, and about other cases caused by a failure to legislate, are not based on a single Irish Times article, but on other, well-established facts – i.e. the 1992 X case, the subsequent A, B, and C cases, and the fact that the government have not yet legislated with regard to the X case, over 20 years after they were told to.

Even if it turns out that elements of the Savita story have been exaggerated, it doesn’t exonerate multiple successive governments from their failure to legislate, nor does it negate the problems caused by the lack of legislation.

I will be eagerly awaiting the results of an inquest or investigation, and I hope that the doctors are given the opportunity to present their side of the story. I hope the inquest is carried out fairly, and that it can shed some light on what happened. While we’re waiting for that inquest, though, the renewed pressure to legislate for X, and indeed to stop avoiding the issue of abortion, will hopefully bring some permanent change to the country.

[…] The details of Savita Halappanavar’s case, and the reasons why it should be sparking all the outrage it has and more, are already all over the place. If you need someone to catch you up, I can recommend starting with Nelson Jones, Sarah Ditum, and Jennifer Keane. […]

I feel very saddened and shocked by the death of Savita Halappanavar. Of course I’m waiting for the full report, since I don’t have the medical knowledge to judge any of this, but if her life could have been saved by an operation then she should have received it, even if it would have had the unfortunate consequence of killing her child (which, we are given to understand, was being miscarried and thus had no chance to be saved). As Allyson said, it seems like the existing law (based on court judgements) would have allowed for an operation in Savita’s case; obviously there needs to be further clarity if we can’t be sure.

My heart goes out to Savita’s family. I guess we face a long period of sadness and regret about this for the immediate future. Once the medical reports come out (and I hope that they are independently verified), then we’ll be able to take whatever action is needed and ensure that justice is done.

🙁

I must add, though, that I was mainly commenting on the case itself in my post above, I should add a further comment on your blog post itself. You say that “while Savita succumbed to infection, the doctors did nothing.” This is patently untrue. Any report I’ve read on the subject said that, notwithstanding their mistake, which remains subject to inquiry but which looks to my untutored eyes to have been severe, they did everything else that they could at this point and afterwards to save her life. I’m sure that they didn’t want her to die.

I did note from various reports, however, that when she initially went into hospital complaining of back pain that she was told everything was okay and to go home. I hope that the report will explain this as well. Maybe if *this* hadn’t happened, she’d still be alive, but for some reason her initial misdiagnosis isn’t getting nearly as much international attention as the fact that she was refused a termination.

I’ve thought about this comemnt this afternoon, Allison. I think…Sometimes, if I’m fighting something at home and something else comes up, I just take the experts’ advice because I am too tired/upset to do that research and fighting for myself. I do think that having a family member go to appointments with you if possible… someone who has a relatively clear head under stress, is a real blessing.Even then, sometimes you just have to trust your doctor. Sometimes your doctor might not be trustworthy, is a frightening thought. :[PS. I have had a D and C on a miscarried child, but my OB was kind enough after the doppler showed no heartbeat AND the sonogram showed a dead child… to still make me go get that second sonogram. I was on autopilot and I guess I thought it wasn’t really real until that second sonogram.Then it was over.I still have a hard time with it. I have been through the same procedure as an “abortion,” except on a dead child. It was still very hard. I don’t fool myself that anyone but the people who get rich off this stuff is out there rejoicing over the “choices” women can make. Most pro-choice ladies I know do feel there needs to be some consideration of the life of the baby, but are strongly opposed to legal intervention with the procedure.

[…] Keane works as a scientist and web developer. Her blog deals with Ireland’s abortion record and status as a Catholic nation, science communication and the myths surrounding MMR vaccination, […]

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