‘Woman denied a termination dies in hospital’

I was making my breakfast while checking Twitter when this headline caught my eye.

I opened the link, to the Irish Times story of Savita Halappanavar. 

Savita went to hospital with because she had pains in her back. She was 17 weeks pregnant. When the doctors examined her, they found that her cervix was fully dilated, she was leaking amniotic fluid and that there was no hope for the pregnancy. 

If Savita had lived in UK, she would have been advised to terminate the non-viable pregnancy.

Savita lived – and died – in Ireland. 


‘This is a Catholic country’


She was told that as long as the foetus had a heartbeat, a termination could not be carried out. For days Savita waited, growing steadily more ill, until the foetal heart beat no more. Only then would the consultant agree to operate. 

It was too late. Savita died of septicaemia a week after she arrived at the hospital. 

A week of sorrow, pain and suffering. What kind of person, let alone a medical professional lets a woman die when he knows that the pregnancy is not viable?

In Ireland the only abortion that is legally obtainable is when the life of the mother is in danger, which was clearly the case here. So why did the doctors not act? 

To answer this question, we need a quick review of the Irish laws on abortion. 


In 1861 abortion was made illegal in Ireland

In 1983, Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution is amended to read as follows
“The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

 In 1992 a 14 year old girl was raped, and wished to travel to UK for an abortion.
The Irish Attorney General  intervened, to prevent the girl leaving the country, but the Supreme Court ruled that since the girl had threatened to end her life, the continuation of the pregnancy constituted a real and substantial risk to her life.

Later in that year, the constitution is amended as follows:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.
This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.

In 2008, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights recommended
that the Irish Government clarify the circumstances in which abortions can legally be carried out in Ireland.

In 2010 the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled
that Ireland’s failure to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion in Ireland when a woman’s life is at risk violates the rights of Applicant C under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


For years, Irish politicians have dragged their feet, unwilling to make the changes so desperately needed to ensure that doctors are not working in a legal vacuum. There is no room for ambiguity when the lives of women depend on a clear and concise legal framework. 

Abortion is legal if the woman’s life is in danger, but not if the pregnancy is non-viable.

This means that women who discover that their unborn child has a serious foetal abnormality, which will certainly lead to the death of the child at birth, are unable to have an abortion. Women who are struggling to come to term with the fact that their longed for baby is ‘non-viable’, have to go through the extra stress of getting the boat or a flight to UK to terminate the pregnancy. 

This is not about abortion. It is about making a woman suffer longer, and there is absolutely no excuse for it.

Irish politicians should be ashamed of themselves. 


The doctors involved in the care of Sanita Halappanavar cannot divert responsibility for their actions. 

Savita went to hospital with back pain on Saturday. According to her husband, she was in pain over the weekend, and on Tuesday evening she collapsed which was when she was first treated for the infection. She was not operated on until the next day – crucial hours of treatment lost because the doctors were waiting for the foetal heartbeat to cease. 

It is well known that a missed, or incomplete miscarriage can lead to infection. Any person working in gynaecology or obstetrics without this knowledge, should be struck off.

The reason given to Savita for the refusal to operate was,


 ‘This is a Catholic country’


Doctors who are too scared of prosecution, or doctors who allow their personal religious beliefs to influence their medical decisions – the end result is the same. Women die. 

In Ireland tonight people gathered to protest and to demand a change to the laws of the land. 



There is a danger that this story will be made to be about pro-choice versus anti-choice (now more than ever, I refuse to call them pro-life). 

It is not about abortion. It is not about time limits. Or even a woman’s right to choose. 

It is about a woman whose life was lost because politicians will not commit to reform. 

It is about the Irish women who have to travel to another country in order to access basic health care.

Terminating a non-viable pregnancy is a basic human right, and the Irish politicians are letting their religion blind them to this. 

It’s not about abortion. It is tragic, enraging, horrific, barbaric. But not about abortion.



Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times




  1. November 15, 2012  7:46 am by Kylie @kykaree Reply

    Brilliant article.

    Woman are being denied access to basic health care. It's a shocking and upsetting story but one we must hear.

    Simply tragic and wrong

  2. November 15, 2012  6:33 pm by Margaret Hickey Reply

    Despite having liberal abortion laws, many women die in the UK from septicaemia. It might be better to await the report on this tragic case before drawing conclusions. The fact remains that Ireland is one of the safest countries in the world to give birth in. Under current Medical Council guidelines doctors are free to terminate a pregnancy where there is risk to a mother's life and to expedite miscarriages even where there is no immediate risk. If one doctor misunderstood or defied these guidelines that is no reason to change them. That doctor and hospital must be held to account.

    • November 15, 2012  8:56 pm by Lynn C Schreiber Reply

      'many women die in the UK from septicaemia' is not true. The most recent data I have found stated that between 14 and 20 women die from septicaemia in UK in one year. Of these between 3 and 7 women died in early pregnancy, after miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy. I would not say that is 'many women', and it has nothing at all to do with abortion laws being liberal or otherwise. (stats from this PDF http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-0528.2010.02847.x/pdf)

      The point I was making was that there is a gap between the current guidelines and the laws of the land, and this gap leads medical staff to interpret the constitution as they see fit. Savita was told that she was in a Catholic country. There was not 'one doctor' on duty for the entire week that she was in hospital.

      It is disingenuous to refer to Ireland's safe record, when women have to travel to UK when they have complications during pregnancy. It is a well known fact that countries with strongest restrictions on pregnancy terminations have the highest maternal mortality rates - when the women are unable to travel to a neighbouring county to access health care.

      I stand by my comments. Savita should have been treated. Whether the lack of treatment was due to the religious convictions of the treating physician or not, her case highlights the massive issue faced by women in Ireland, and the cowardice of Ireland's politicians.

      At the same time - I agree that we should wait until the results of the investigation are done before we draw hasty conclusions.

      I mean no disrespect to the Irish with this blog post, and I don't think that it is a backward country.

  3. Pingback : Woman dies in Galway Hospital after being refused termination - Page 291

  4. November 15, 2012  10:19 pm by Bernadette Reply

    Such a tragic case :(

    I've tried to write a comment on here for the last 10 minutes but the words are not coming. Surely her basic healthcare needs should have been met, such a tragic waste of life.

    • November 15, 2012  10:22 pm by Lynn C Schreiber Reply

      It took me all day yesterday to gather my thoughts. Such a terrible waste.

  5. November 21, 2012  7:23 pm by sharon Reply

    I'm pro-choice. Period. That said, even if I weren't, this is about legislators and doctors who are more concerned about their careers than saving an individual person's life, and the extra-disgusting part is that this woman's fetus could not possibly have survived once the partial miscarriage occurred, but the woman, for whom this was a wanted pregnancy, could have survived the miscarriage and gone on to have other children. Why do stupid people make stupid laws and stupid formulations of values that end up working against those values? Because they're stupid.

  6. December 6, 2012  12:11 am by margaret hickey Reply

    lynn shreiber please say on what data you base your assertion that more women die from septicaemia in countries that have restrictive laws on abortion ?

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