The death of a pregnant woman after she was refused an abortion has sparked an outcry in the Irish Republic.
Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia a week after complaining of back pain on 21 October at University Hospital, in Galway. At the hospital Mrs Halappanavar, 31, who was 17 weeks pregnant, was found to be miscarrying.
According to her husband, doctors refused to give her a medical termination over a three-day period before her death, because the foetal heartbeat was still present.
The Hindu couple were told: “This is a Catholic country.”
After the dead foetus was removed, Mrs Halappanavar was taken to intensive care, where she died on 28 October.
Two days later, an autopsy found she succumbed to septicaemia and E coli ESBL.
“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby,” her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, 34, said.
“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 foetal heartbeat, we can’t do anything’.”
Mr Halappanavar, an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, is in India, having accompanied his wife’s body there for her funeral.
The health service executive, which runs Ireland’s public healthcare system, has initiated an investigation into the incident, which is also being investigated by the hospital itself.
The Galway Roscommon University Hospitals Group said it extended its sympathies to Mrs Halappanavar’s family.
The Galway hospital said doctors had carried out all standard practices in notifying the death to the coroner, informing the health service executive and completing a maternal death notification.
Reports of Mrs Halappanavar’s death seem certain to reopen the debate about abortion in Ireland.
Seven Irish governments have failed to legislate on the back of the 1992 “X Case” where the Supreme Court ruled a teenage girl who had been raped and became pregnant should have the right to travel for an abortion.
The Supreme Court also said abortions should be lawful when a woman’s life was in danger or she was at risk of suicide.
But iIn 1992, a referendum to establish the “right to travel” and the “right to information” for Irish women was defeated.
In January, the Irish government established a 14-member expert group to make recommendations based on a 2010 European Court of Human Rights judgment that the state failed to implement existing rights to lawful abortion where a mother’s life was at risk.
The group was due to report in July but has been delayed.
A pro-choice protest was held in front of the Dail, the Irish parliament, in Dublin, yesterday evening.
MP Clare Daly criticised the government for failing to adopt the Socialist Party’s X Case Bill earlier this year, which would have introduced laws to allow an abortion in specific life-threatening circumstances.
She said: “A woman has died because Galway University Hospital refused to perform an abortion needed to prevent serious risk to her life.
“This is a situation we were told would never arise. An unviable foetus – the woman was having a miscarriage – was given priority over the woman’s life, who unfortunately and predictably developed septicaemia and died.”
Sinead Ahern, a spokeswoman for the campaign group Choice Ireland, told The Scotsman: “This case highlights the fact that we have been waiting 11 months for the report from an expert group to implement rights to lawful abortion where a mother’s life was at risk.
“There is such a taboo about abortion in Irish society. It’s not the sort of thing people lobby politicians about, partly because of the safety valve of the UK and also the stigma and silence around the issue. The groups lobbying against abortion are very vocal and well-funded.”
In 2011, 4,139 women who had abortions in the UK gave Irish home addresses, according to figures from the Department of Health.
Background: How personal tragedies have ignited debate since ‘X Case’
In THE 20 years since the X Case in Ireland, campaigns have repeatedly ignited over the need for the government to amend legislation to allow abortion when a mother’s life is at risk.
The case resulted in a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that terminations should be lawful when a woman’s life is in danger or she is at risk of suicide. Despite this, no legislation has been introduced to allow an abortion to protect the mother’s life.
An estimated 4,200 women travel from the Republic to the UK and other European countries each year to end a pregnancy. Abortion was outlawed in 1861, and over the past 30 years there have been three referendums on what is one of the most contentious issues in Irish society.
In 1983, voters backed proposals to recognise that a mother and unborn child have equal right to life, and since 2002 women have had the right to travel outside the state for a termination and the right to information on abortion, following other votes. There was fresh debate on the issue this year, when four women went public with harrowing stories of how they travelled abroad for an abortion following diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormalities.
Now the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar has again triggered controversy.