Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian woman living in Ireland, went to the hospital when she first began to miscarry — but thanks to Ireland’s stringent abortion ban, medical professionals denied her repeated requests to quickly terminate the pregnancy because they could still detect a fetal heartbeat. The Irish hospital required her to extend her miscarriage over three days until the fetus’ heartbeat officially stopped, and by that time, Halappanavar had developed serious blood poisoning. She passed away just a few days later.
Halappanavar’s death helps highlight the tragic effect of Ireland’s stringent abortion ban, but the impact of that type of restrictive legislation isn’t just limited to that country. In fact, lawmakers in Ohio are quietly pushing extreme anti-abortion legislation that would subject the women in that state to a situation incredibly similar to the one in Ireland.
During this year’s lame duck session, Ohio legislators are planning to revive HB 125, a so-called “heartbeat” bill that would ban abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected — which can first occur as early as five or six weeks, before many women may even know they’re pregnant. The proposed legislation represents the most restrictive abortion ban in the United States. If HB 125 is passed, it would criminalize all abortions after the emergence of a fetal heartbeat without allowing even the narrowest exceptions in potential cases of rape, incest, or the mental health of the woman.
Even if Ohio’s bill includes some kind of provision that would allow women to seek abortions in life-threatening situations, Halappanavar’s death points to the fact that health risks aren’t always immediately apparent. A 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Ireland amended the country’s abortion ban to include an exception in cases where the woman’s life is in danger, but Irish hospitals don’t always know how far that medical exception can stretch. They are often reluctant to provide women with abortion services unless the situation is very clearly life-threatening — and for women like Halappanavar, that can already be too late.
And in cases where the fetus is not expected to survive — when women like Halappanavar are undergoing a miscarriage, or when doctors discover fatal fetal defects — anti-abortion legislation is often murky, even in this country. In Arizona, where a stringent abortion ban outlaws the procedure after just 20 weeks, women who discover fatal defects that will not allow their fetus to survive are forced to carry the fetus to term anyway.