How We Failed Savita Halappanavar

On October 21st, Savita Halappanavar walked into Galway University Hospital complaining of severe back pain. A week later she was dead, fallen victim to septicaemia and e. coli. But Savita could have lived had she been offered one simple and common medical procedure – termination of a failing pregnancy.

When Savita was examined upon admission to the hospital, she was found to be miscarrying, but doctors could still detect a foetal heartbeat. For this reason, she was denied the termination – Ireland’s strict abortion laws forbid the procedure unless the mother’s life is in imminent danger. Instead, she was left to endure the pain and sorrow of a miscarriage, refused the option of inducing labour to hasten the process.

The distress of the experience, prolonged by those who doubtless wished they could help her, is unimaginable to someone that hasn’t experienced it. Savita’s husband, Parveen, said that she dealt with the situation well, even discussing trying for another baby. Savita seemed determined not to let the experience ruin her life; instead, it ended it.

The doctors and nurses who cared for Savita surely saw how she suffered; even though they must have been wracked with compassion and remorse, an unclear law said they could not help her. Whatever their personal politics and morals, regardless of their religious position or Hippocratic oath to protect life, they were compelled to manage and oversee the death of a young woman that they could otherwise have saved.

Savita’s foetus was not viable, there was no hope of survival; instead of working to save one life, her doctors were forced to witness the end of two. They will have worked to combat the septicaemia that is believed to have killed her; they will have tried to keep her liver and kidneys healthy and functioning for as long as they could. But the awful truth is that one procedure could have obviated the need for all of that, and she was denied it – not by her doctors, but by the law.

Had Savita refused a termination, we could respect the decision that she had made, assured that she had her reasons for doing so. Had her doctors performed the procedure, there would be no news story; Savita and Parveen could have returned home and slowly come to terms with their loss. Instead, Parveen has lost not just his wife and his child, but his hopes and dreams for the future; everything he thought his life would become has been taken from him because of cruel and unsympathetic legislation.

Ireland’s legal position on abortion is well-known; a historic cause for concern. For generations, girls and women have been forced to scrape together all the money they could and travel to England in secrecy – once by ferry into Liverpool, now by Ryanair and Easyjet flights into Heathrow and Luton. We cannot know their stories, but we may be assured that every one was different: some were young girls in the first flush of love who hadn’t expected to conceive, some were victims of rape who now faced an additional burden of Catholic guilt to add to their trauma, some were women whose physical and mental ill-health meant that the strain of carrying a baby was an unthinkable challenge.

Thousands of men and women have marched in London, Dublin, and New York in Savita’s name. Across India, political and journalistic voices have been raised, questioning the Irish system. Savita’s parents and her husband have challenged the Irish authorities to explain why an Indian Hindu should be killed by a law intended for Irish Catholics – they have yet to receive an answer.

No-one who claims to respect the sanctity of human life could pardon this unpardonable offence. Anyone who believes that Savita’s death was justified and that Irish law is correct has no right to call themselves pro-life; they are pro-foetus, no more and no less. We have permitted a religious position to influence the state, and by doing so ensured that a Christian moral has killed a Hindu woman. If we do not insist on the reassessment and abolition of this murderous legislation, we lose our claim to humanity and empathy.

It would be easy for us as atheists to exploit Savita’s death to serve our own moral argument; we must resist the urge to do so. As feminists, we could hold her experience up as damning evidence of the sheer ignorance and foolhardiness of the pro-life movement; we must not. We must instead act in Savita’s memory to ensure that this miserable, barbaric chain of events never befalls another woman.

First posted Saturday, 24 November 2012

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