On October 21, a 31-year-old woman went to University Hospital Galway, in Ireland. Savita Halappanavar had back pain and was 17 weeks pregnant with her first child; upon exam, doctors told Savita and her husband, Praveen, that she was experiencing a miscarriage. As the pain continued and her water broke, Savita asked if the pregnancy could be terminated. But, according to her husband, “‘They said unfortunately she can’t because it’s a Catholic country. … Savita said … she is not Catholic, she is Hindu, and why impose the law on her.” The hospital’s response was that, because Ireland is a “Catholic country,” an abortion couldn’t be performed if the fetus still had a heartbeat. Although Savita asked repeatedly that the pregnancy be terminated, her requests were always denied. Several days later, the heartbeat stopped, but Savita’s condition was worsening, and she was moved to the hospital’s intensive care unit. She died on October 28.
Reading about this tragic case reminds me of instances in the U.S. when women have had to fight to receive medically necessary abortions. There’s the case of a New Hampshire woman was 14 weeks pregnant when her water broke. The woman’s OB/GYN, Wayne Goldner, examined her and determined that, given the risk of infection and the very slim chance of carrying the pregnancy to term, an abortion was necessary. But because Dr. Goldner’s hospital had merged with a Catholic facility, he was not permitted to perform the abortion, since the fetus still had a heartbeat and the woman did not yet show signs of infection. So Dr. Goldner sent his patient, by taxi, to the nearest hospital that would perform an abortion—which was 80 miles away.
And there was the case in Arizona that drew national attention after a nun was “automatically excommunicated” when she allowed a termination to be performed on a critically ill woman who was 11 weeks pregnant. Sister Margaret McBride had been an administrator at St. Joseph Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix; she was also on the hospital’s ethics committee when the termination occurred. Although by all accounts ending the pregnancy was necessary to save the patient’s life, McBride’s actions caused her to be demoted and criticized.
According to an autopsy report, Savita Halappanavar died from septicemia (blood poisoning). Her death is being investigated by the hospital, and by the country’s public health care provider, Health Service Executive. Currently, abortion is banned in the Republic of Ireland except where there is a substantial risk to the life—distinct from the health—of the woman. (Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland only if there is an imminent threat to the woman’s life, or a long-term threat to her mental or physical health.) However, as Sky News noted, “There is … no agreed method for determining such circumstances.” Sky News also reported that Savita’s death is “expected to spark a backlash against the Irish government, criticised by left-wing members of parliament for failing to introduce new laws to permit abortion in life-threatening circumstances,” and indeed, activists both in Ireland and around the world are calling for the Irish government to reform the country’s abortion laws.
Whether they succeed remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Ireland isn’t the only place where religion and women’s health care clash. Pro-choice activists–and anyone that cares about women receiving the medical care they need–in the U.S. would be wise to follow this case closely, and take steps to ensure that this kind of tragedy doesn’t occur again.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.