Savita Halapannavar, the 31-year-old Indian woman who died after being denied an emergency abortion at a Catholic hospital in Ireland, sparked a national conversation about the serious consequences of prohibiting women’s access to reproductive health care. Halapannavar’s husband maintains that her death could have been prevented if hospital officials had intervened earlier to terminate her non-viable fetus. Now, after a two-week review of the coroner’s report, that position has been confirmed by an Irish jury — which has unanimously concluded that poor health care caused Halapannavar’s death.
Under Ireland’s total abortion ban, medical professionals are wary to provide abortion services even when women’s lives may be in danger. Even though the country amended its abortion ban in 1992 to include an exception in life-threatening situations, Irish hospitals don’t always know how far that medical exception can stretch. Doctors are wary of being prosecuted for murder even if they approve a termination for medical reasons.
That’s why Halapannavar’s doctors denied her repeated requests to quickly terminate her pregnancy once she began to miscarry. They weren’t sure it technically fell under the definition of a life-threatening medical emergency, so they required Halapannavar to extend her miscarriage over the next three days, until the fetal heartbeat finally stopped. It was only then that the hospital realized that Halapannavar had developed serious blood poisoning. She passed away three days later from organ failure.
The two-week fact-finding probe into Halapannavar’s case found that the hospital is to blame for failing to effectively diagnose and treat Halapannavar during her stay. During the inquest, the key expert witness — the former head of a major Dublin maternity hospital — said he was “confident” that Halappanavar’s death would have been averted if she had received an abortion one or two days earlier. He also criticized Ireland’s abortion law, explaining that since doctors can’t perform a termination “unless the woman looks like she is going to die,” the policy sets up a Catch-22 where it can already be too late to save the woman by the time doctors finally reach the conclusion that she is in danger.
After the eleven-person jury reached their verdict, the coroner commended Halapannavar’s husband for tirelessly protesting against his wife’s medical treatment. That activism, which helped spark international outrage around Ireland’s harsh abortion law, could actually spur a shift in the country’s policy. The Irish government has agreed to draft a law that will clarify the medical guidelines for legal abortion services — although conservative Catholics in the country are already mobilizing against the measure.
Halapannavar’s case is not unique to Ireland. Around the world, an estimated 47,000 women die each year because they lack access to safe, legal abortion care. Abortion opponents have successfully segregated abortion from the rest of health care, attempting to make the case that this type of reproductive service is somehow outside of the other routine medical treatment that women may require. But as Halapannavar’s tragic death demonstrates — and as a jury has now confirmed — abortion is an important aspect of women’s health care, and denying access to it has serious consequences.