So Much for the “Life of the Mother”: The Death of Savita Halappanavar

Last month, a young woman named Savita Halappanavar was murdered by an Irish hospital. Yes, murdered. Let’s call it what it is. I refuse to sugarcoat a topic that should be treated as honestly and straightforwardly as possible, without the anti-choice rhetoric or pleasant popular media wording. Savita Halappanavar was denied an abortion, and it killed her.

Halappanavar was a 31-year-old dentist living in Galway, Ireland. Was. Until she was admitted to University Hospital Galway late last month with intense pain Savita Halappanavar up close.and was found to be miscarrying the 17 week old fetus she was carrying. The hospital, stating that “this is a Catholic country,” denied her a therapeutic abortion, despite three days of miscarrying, despite no chance of survival for the fetus. Despite the septicemia that was overtaking Savita’s body. They said the fetus still had a heartbeat, ignoring the fact that so did Savita. She died in that hospital of blood poisoning after days of miscarriage. I call this murder.

After a surprisingly large media outcry, Savita Hallapanavar’s death is now being investigated by an independent investigator in Ireland. In 1992, a Supreme Court ruling declared that abortions be allowed in Ireland, a country which broadly bans abortion, if the life of the mother is at risk. One would think that blood poisoning fills that criteria. Yet because of the presence of a fetal heartbeat, the life of the mother was terminated.

The concept of the “life of the mother” is thrown about rather casually in American politics. We measure the severity of a politician’s anti-choice leanings by whether they invoke the rape and incest and life of the mother exceptions and take it for granted when they do. Call it a slow, steady decline into abortion prohibition. As long as those exceptions are there, pro-choice Americans can breathe a collective sigh of relief. It’s not that bad, right? But it is that bad, because we’ve just seen that the life of the mother means nothing. This tragedy, thousands of miles away, has confirmed to us the previosuly┬átheoretical┬áconcept that the potential for life, no matter how small, means more than a life already living.

Savita dancing with husband.
Savita Halappanavar dances with her husband at a Diwali celebration.

Savita Hallapanavar could have had a long, wonderful life. She could have continued her promising career, lived and laughed with her husband and friends and family. She could have had children one day and maybe grandchildren after that. But to the doctors at University Hospital Galway, those opportunities didn’t matter. Her life did not matter, only the heartbeat of the nonviable fetus she was miscarrying. This was not a fetus with the potential for life; it was a fetus with the certainty of death. Savita had unmeasurable potential to further the life she had already lived 31 years of. It is a tragedy that she didn’t get the chance.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

14 replies on “So Much for the “Life of the Mother”: The Death of Savita Halappanavar”

The ‘pro-life’ ones on this side of the pond have been pretty vocal: the doctors didn’t follow the medical council guidelines, there’s no need for legislation, and sentiments like “Must we send thousands of babies to Satan for the death of one woman?” (I wish I could find the picture, urgh). Oh, and accusing everyone else of ‘politicising’ her death.

I think he’s been extremely courageous. We wouldn’t know about Savita if it wasn’t for him, and I applaud him.

But please spare some prayers for all the women in Ireland who have suffered and died because of this and will suffer and die unless we change the laws.

There needs to be a far wider recognition of how inefficient and dangerous the “life of the mother” clause is. It is bullshit and needs to be called out as such. There are absolutely no winners in a scheme where a pregnant woman’s health condition needs to be left to deteriorate to the point where it becomes life-threatening, before a therapeutic abortion is allowed. Based on this case it seems highly dubious if doctors can even identify where that point is. (In a scenario already involving a miscarriage like here, it does however seem there was active ill will from the medical professionals involved.)

Also, it would be interesting to know how knowingly leaving someone to suffer for days from a treatable condition whilst in hospital care complies with legislation banning torture.

Oh, and team “God’s will” needs to show some integrity and die in agony, as their God cleary intends them to, as soon as they get their next easily-treatable-with-modern-medicine infection.

As far as I can tell from what’s been reported, the doctors legally couldn’t do anything while Savita seemed healthy (though in pain, and suffering) and the foetus had a heartbeat – that’s under the terms of the Irish Medical Council guidelines based on the X-case judgment.
When she collapsed with symptoms of septicaemia but they didn’t do the termination until the following day, that could be illegal under Irish law – depending on how sick she was i.e.: whether her life was in danger while the foetus’ heart was still beating.

I think the doctors were cowardly but I also can’t blame them too much because they were operating in a legal vacuum (as doctors have been since the X-case in 1992). We don’t know how many women had similar situations but survived – or even died, and their families didn’t talk about it.

The blame must go on the politicians and the ‘pro-life’ lobbyists.

And yes, ‘life of the mother’ is a bullshit argument and it’s not anywhere near enough, but when you’re lobbying for change in abortion law that’s been on the statute books since the 1860s you have to start somewhere.

Agreed fully that politicians are to blame here. However, I haven’t noticed anyone talking about what kind of risks the doctors would have faced if they’d acted sooner. In a legal vacuum, is there a real risk of prosecution for the doctors? Who’d press charges, the state? How often does that actually happen? Hard to believe this case could result in a conviction, but what would that entail – would it be prosecuted as murder?

I’m not a lawyer so am happy to be corrected by one who knows about Irish law, but they could – theoretically – have been prosecuted by the State (the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions) under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act for the criminal offence of procuring an abortion (still on the statue books from when Ireland was part of the UK). How this law interacts with the Constitution, which since 1983 gives a foetus an equal right to life as the pregnant woman, I don’t know.

That said, I haven’t heard of one case of a doctor being prosecuted under that act since 1992. They could, however, lose their licence to practice if they went against Medical Council guidelines.

I’m telling you, as an Irish person I am not letting this go, and I’m not the only one. There are rallies and vigils all over the country for Savita tomorrow.

I wrote a post about this last night which hopefully should be up soon.

There are actually two investigations happening, one by the hospital and one by the HSE (the organisation that oversees healthcare in the Republic of Ireland, very roughly analogous to the UK’s NHS). If you can bear it, this is the original story with quotes and audio from Savita’s husband Praveen: it lays out what happened in more detail.

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