Savita Halappanavar - A tragedy that was preventable

Medical aspects surrounding the death of Savita Halappanavar at Galway University Hospital on Oct 28 are currently being investigated.

It may therefore be premature to come to a definitive judgment, but what seems undeniable is that this is a tragedy which should have been preventable. Most people are deeply upset at what happened, and our profound sympathies go out to the young woman’s family. But all these expressions of sympathy and regret must sound particularly hollow at this stage.

Savita Halappanavar, 31, a dentist, was admitted to Galway University Hospital on Oct 21 in agonising pain. She was 17 weeks’ pregnant and was miscarrying her baby. At the outset, she was told the foetus would not survive and that it would all be over in a matter of hours. But her immediate agony lasted for three days.

If the baby would not survive, she pleaded for the pregnancy to be terminated. Her husband has claimed they were told this was not possible as “this is a Catholic country”.

Such crass insensitivity is a perversion of the Catholic position. Under Irish law, if the purpose of an operation is to kill the baby it is wrong, but if the aim is to save the mother’s life it is permitted both by the Catholic Church and the Irish Constitution.

Mrs Halappanavar was neither Irish nor Catholic. She was Hindu, but most of all she was a woman who deserved proper treatment. She and her husband — Praveen Halappanavar, 34, an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway — were told there was nothing that could be done for them. The inquiry should provide a clear judgment on what could and should have been done.

The longer Mrs Halappanavar’s ordeal went on, the more susceptible she became to infection. After the foetus was removed, she was moved to intensive care as she was suffering with septicaemia and e. coli, which eventually killed her.

Issues surrounding a threat to the life of a pregnant woman have plagued Irish politics for the last 30 years. During the general election campaign of Nov 1982, Garret FitzGerald, the leader of Fine Gael, informed Dick Spring, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, that even though he was personally opposed to the wording of the Pro-Life Amendment, he was endorsing it, because his party was insisting.

All of the parties were playing politics with the issue. As taoiseach the following year, Dr FitzGerald opposed the amendment, but it was ratified anyway.

At that time proponents of the amendment insisted that it would not preclude a birth being induced to save the life of the mother. In 1992 the Supreme Court ruled that the girl at the centre of the X case was entitled to an abortion to save her life, because she was suicidal. This firmly established the constitutional position that a mother was entitled to a termination to save her own life, but ever since the Oireachtas has shirked its responsibility to provide legislative clarity on the issue.

The Halappanavar case is a terrible tragedy which reflects badly on Irish politics, the HSE, and Irish society generally.

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