Irish share collective blame for failure to remove legal grey area

Savita Halappanavar. Picture: The Irish Times.
Savita Halappanavar. Picture: The Irish Times.

“I haven’t got my answers yet why Savita died. I will get to the bottom of the truth.”

So spoke the ever brave Praveen Halappanavar as the two-week inquest into the entirely preventable death of his young wife came to a close.

It is impossible to be Irish and not feel shame when it comes to the Savita story; not to be ashamed at our weakness in the face of Praveen’s unrelenting determination and fortitude.

We all like to blame yellow-belly successive governments for the failure to legislate for the X case, but what about the learned helplessness of the many vote-wielding Irish people who acknowledged for years that it would take a case like Savita’s before there would be action?

Yet we all just sat there and let it happen. We chose to sneer at “Church-fearing” politicians, yet we all know our politicians are there because we put them there. We could have made this an issue, but we didn’t.

Our learned professionals, lawyers and doctors did nothing to rail against this legal grey area.

Just ask any journalist how impossible it is to get an ambitious medical or legal professional to give an on-the-record personal opinion on abortion. It’s a career-wrecker in this country, they’ll tell you.

Instead, we left a woman die in “barbaric and inhumane” conditions.

Savita’s cause of death was recorded as septic shock, E.coli causing bloodstream infection, and the miscarriage at 17 weeks’ gestation with severe chorioamnionitis.

The inquest revealed many deficiencies in her care, but none on its own was likely to have led to her death.

During the seven days of gruelling evidence, we heard Dr Peter Boylan tell us how Ms Halappanavar would probably still be alive today if the law had allowed an abortion earlier, as by the time it was sufficiently clear there was a real risk to her life, it was too late to save her.

Irish law prevented Irish doctors from doing what doctors in many other countries would have done — terminate a pregnancy to reduce the risk to a woman’s life.

In Ireland, there has to be a “real and substantial” risk to the mother’s life before obstetricians can intervene, and no guidelines existed to help them make this decision.

There were clearly systems failures at University Hospital Galway; poor quality note-taking; a failure to follow up on blood results; an incomprehensible failure to take vital signs when all the signs were that this woman was highly likely to have infection; a failure to communicate between different shifts.

However, the bottom line is that by the time an Irish doctor could be assured that they were legally safe to call for an abortion, essentially that a woman really looked like she was about to die, it was too late. Shame on us.

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