Ireland's law and Catholic culture allowed Savita Halappanavar to die

The tragic case of a woman who was miscarrying, who died because doctors wouldn't give her a termination, shows the danger of fetishising the life of the unborn child.

The tragic death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital, apparently after being refused an emergency abortion, has not surprisingly provoked outrage. Although she was found to be miscarrying after being admitted to hospital suffering from back pain on 21 October, for three days staff declined to remove the foetus on the grounds that it still had a detectable heartbeat. Most shockingly of all, a doctor is said to have told Savita and her husband that there was no question of a termination, because "this is a Catholic country".

Ireland's health executive has already announced an inquiry, but that hasn't stopped demands that the country's strict abortion law be re-written. Demonstrations are taking place in Dublin and at the Irish embassy in London. The case is heartbreaking. The details of Savita's final days, spent in agony before she succumbed to the septicaemia and e.coli she contracted when her cervix had remained dilated for 72 hours, are almost too shocking to contemplate. It seems, on the face of it, inhuman that doctors would have allowed her to suffer out of some misplaced concern for the life of her (clearly unsaveable) foetus, or because of their understanding of Irish law or Catholic doctrine. Surely, many will think, this tragedy gives the lie to arguments that opposition to abortion is founded on a respect for life and human dignity. 

This was no case of an elective abortion. Savita was not trying to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy. She was miscarrying and crying out in pain. The responsibilities of the medical staff seem plain: to facilitate the ending of her medical emergency as quickly and safely as possible. That the foetus could not have survived the procedure cannot be relevant in circumstances where it is already doomed. To expedite the ending of the pregnancy in such circumstances cannot properly be called "abortion" at all. This looks, on the face of it, like a case of medical negligence that has little to do with the abortion debate as such.

It is, for one thing, difficult to square the treatment of Savita Halappanavar with the guidelines contained in Ireland's Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners (pdf), which provide that:

Rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention (including termination of a pregnancy) is required at a stage when, due to extreme immaturity of the baby, there may be little or no hope of the baby surviving. In these exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to intervene to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother.

Not surprisingly, pro-life voices are already making these points, besides calling for caution and demanding that the case not be used as a political football. Several have taken to Twitter to stress that, however strong their own opposition to abortion as a rule, they would have made an exception in a case such as this where the mother's life was in danger. One told me that he'd "like to think that anyone of any persuasion would be sickened to their stomach."

Nevertheless, the reported facts suggest that Ireland's abortion law, and its Catholic culture, were the context within which these horrific events unfolded. As recently as September, an "international symposium" meeting in Dublin declared that "direct abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a woman", though it added, confusingly, that "legitimate medical treatment" that resulted in pregnancy termination didn't count as such. The statement claimed that "misinformation abounds in public debate" around this issue. But if it is misinformation, Savita's death suggests that it isn't just the public that is misinformed. Her doctors, too, appear to be labouring under the same delusion.

This is obviously a law that requires urgent clarification. On that, I hope that campaigners on both sides of the abortion debate would agree. Even if this does turn out to be a case of medical negligence, even if (as seems likely) the law as it stands would have allowed doctors to intervene and so save Savita's life, they seem to have have believed differently. And this is what mattered. It is particularly shameful that Irish governments have failed to legislate in the twenty years since the Irish Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal where the mother's life is in danger.

It would be both simplistic and not particularly helpful to turn Savita Halappanavar into a pro-choice martyr. Her tragic death, whether or not the Irish law caused it, is fairly irrelevant to the more general issue of a woman's right to request a termination where her health is not at risk. It does, though, demonstrate all too vividly the dangers of an extreme anti-abortion position. The mindset that denies women the right to make choices for their own lives and over their own bodies leads all too easily to the fetishising of the unborn child, according it a special sanctity beyond the merely human. The principle of preserving life comes to be more important than life itself. 

An anti abortion protester holds up a placard. Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage