Savita’s case needs its own legislation

Picture: The Irish Times

The bill doesn’t go far enough, says Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

SINCE the needless death of Savita Halappanavar at Galway University Hospital last October, pro-choice and pro-life groups have been at pains to stress certain facts in what happened.

“She developed sepsis so she died, and this is what we should focus on,” one will state. “She could not have an abortion in Ireland so she died, and this is what we should focus on,” another will counter.

The truth, however, is more complex. There are legitimate — and many would say long overdue — reasons for why the wider discussion currently taking place about Ireland’s abortion laws is needed.

They have been repeated and fought over for decades, could and should have been resolved at any points over the past 21 years, and do not need to be re-stated here.

But, while the underlying issues directly related to what happened to Savita are intrinsically linked to this matter, they will not be solved solely by it. The only way to prevent a repeat of the specific circumstances which led to Savita’s death is to accept, it too, has its own issues.

On Thursday, obstetrics expert Professor Sabaratnam Arulkumaran stated specific legislation must be considered to end any potential risk of a repeat of the case. Without passing judgment on the need or not for the Government’s wider Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill 2013, he said the Savita case has its own nuanced issues.

On page six of the report, he wrote that a law in addition to the Government’s bill “should be considered” for “inevitable miscarriage” cases involving “risk of infection and thereby risk of harm up to and including death”.

He said this is because in these circumstances, waiting until there is a real and substantive risk to the life of the mother is waiting too long; termination must be considered, he said, when there is a real risk of infection, which can quickly lead to risk to health and risk to life. This goes further than the Government bill, in cases like that of Savita.

On page 59, he was more specific, saying further clarity is needed to allow for abortions in cases like Savita’s where a pregnancy is deemed an “inevitable miscarriage” in the second trimester and a serious infection is apparent. “Such guidelines must be consistent with applicable law and... may require legal change.”

He told reporters that a woman should not have to be “at death’s door” in this specific situation before being given a termination.

And when asked about the Government’s abortion bill he was clear: “I got the latest legislation which I read this morning. That specifically addresses the issue of suicide, and how to intervene in cases of suicide and saving the mother.

“A similar change in the law, but for situations where conditions can rapidly escalate [such as Savita’s case], needs to be considered.”

What happened to Savita is intrinsically linked to the wider abortion laws debate. But solving the wider issue via the Government’s abortion bill does not stop the risk of what happened to her being repeated.

Savita’s case needs its own specific legislation.

The reality is Savita didn’t die just because she contracted sepsis or because of Ireland’s abortion laws.

She died when both of these issues collided, and when they were compounded by shocking medical failures.

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