The death of Savita Halappanavar brings into the political fray the urgency of legislation to follow the X Case judgement, now 20 years old, but not only that raises a number of issue at the centre of Irish society most notably religious extremism, lack of adequate governance from the ruling coalition, a failed health system and the oppression of women in Irish society. All four of these aspects are featured from this case and this blog post will explore all four aspects in some detail.
Savita Halappanavar died in October 2012 in Galway Roscommon Univerisity Hospital as a result of septicemia which she contracted. Three days earlier Savita had visited the hospital in pain, miscarrying at 17 weeks. It was found had that Mrs Halappanavar had a dilated cervix and so was at risk of infection. Doctors monitored the heartbeat of the foetus and and it appears that because it had a heartbeat it was deemed to be alive and therefore in the view of the medical staff could not be removed. Three days later the foetus was removed. The Guardian takes up the story here (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/14/savita-halappanavar-medically-unnecessary-death) and summarises what happened:
She died of septicaemia and E Coli. She died after three and a half days of excruciating pain. She died after repeatedly begging for an end to the pregnancy that was poisoning her. Her death would have been avoided if she had been given an abortion when she asked for it – when it was clear she was miscarrying, and that non-intervention would put her at risk.
Savita Halappanavar does not have to die in vain. The government and past successive governments since the X Case have failed to legislate adequately for such an occasion. The X Case was brought before the courts when a 14 year old girl, known only as X, was brought to court to prevent her going to England for an abortion due to a pregnancy from being raped by a neighbour. The Attorney General at the time,Harry Whelehan successfully got an injunction at the High Court but this was turned over on appeal at the Supreme Court by a majority of four to one. It was ruled that a woman was entitled to an abortion if there was risk to her life but not to her health. As X was suicidal, this criteria was deemed to be constituting a risk to her life so X was allowed to go to England for an abortion. Since this, the governments of successive years have failed to legislate for the case and to provide clarity for doctors and patients and as such are in breach of European law.
Part of the reason that the government has not legislated for abortion is that there is a certain conservative element within the Irish government, most notably in Fine Gael whom are still rooted in old school conservative Ireland in their politics. Only recently 15 TD’s spoke out against any proposals by the government to liberalise any of the laws on abortion and sought assurances from the government that such legislation would never pass. There is no question over certain members attitudes to abortion within the party when you consider that people like Gay Mitchell have made remarks (which they later say they regretted) which compared abortions to the Holocaust. In statements that were again brought under the microscope before the recent presidential elections, Mitchell was reminded of remarks he had made in 1998 in which he said (speaking of concentration camps) “children [were] poisoned by educated physicians, infants killed by trained nurses” to which was added ““could easily apply to the millions of abortions which needlessly take place year after year”.
This religious element is not only to be found in the government. Savita Halappanavar’s husband told the media that when his wife sought an abortion, he was told that they could not give one as Ireland was a Catholic country. Youth Defence even at the time of writing this article are quick enough to hop on the bandwagon, according to thejournal.ie (http://www.thejournal.ie/savita-youth-defence-abortion-674078-Nov2012/) (in what surely must be a fairly ironic):
Its statement said:
According to the information that is available, it seems that a delay in administering antibiotics may have been the cause of the septicaemia which tragically led to her death.
In other words they are telling us that journalists are not in full possession of the facts, but they are telling us that it seems the antibiotics not being administered early enough may have been the sole cause of death. Do Youth Defence not think they should have the full facts also?
The health system itself, being badly managed due to lack of clear direction and grey areas over the law could have done a lot more to address the situation in which Savita Halappanavar found herself . Doctors in similar situations in Ireland may be worried about the possible legal implications regarding carrying out such an abortion in the country. With no legislation or clear guidance in place, doctors are more or less left in legal limbo as to what direction to take on the matter. A young woman lost her life as there were no clear instructions on what to do in such a situation, which brings me to my last point.
Savita Halappanavar was denied the opportunity to be in control of her own body. The state has no business telling a woman what she can or cannot do with her body up to a certain point when it is carrying a foetus. Savita Halapannavar had requested a termination of the foetus to alleviate her suffering but this was ignored and in retrospect, this was a breach of her rights as a woman, to do what she wanted with her body. Considering the gender balance that exists at the moment in government, it is mostly men that are making the decisions: scary thought that men are mostly making the decisions for a woman and how she should live her life .
The recent report of the government expert group has laid out a number of options. We could legislate, draw up new regulations, do up some guidelines or simply wallow in our indifference. Doctors differ and patients die, in this scenario politicians differ and argue, and patients will die slow agonising death on hospital trollies as they all try to pander to the conservative elements of their parties all the while trying to figure out how not to alienate the electorate. Savita Halappanvar’s father has called for a public enquiry int the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s death. Now that the government has conceded that three doctors investigating their own colleagues was not a good idea, an independent public enquiry appears to be the best option for all parties for the sake of transparency.
It is quite clear that the government, the health services and other agents of society that are meant to protect a woman’s life failed. To what extent is not yet quite clear, but what is clear is this, there is one grieving husband looking for answers.