Ruminations on Savita Halappanavar’s Death: The Difference Between The Law and Its Application

Surely you’ve already heard of Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death in Ireland on October 28th of this year. Go on, read the article if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.

I’ve been listening on the radio, reading, thinking about the heartache her husband and family feel, about the protests in India and Ireland. About the medical providers who saw her suffering and are likely suffering now themselves. I’ve been rolling the facts around in my head: Savita was 31 years old. A dentist. A Hindu. Since 2008, Savita was living in Ireland with her husband, Praveen Halappanavar. She was organizing the Diwali festival in her community. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant with a desired pregnancy, then she miscarried. When she went to the Emergency Department, she requested an abortion and was denied one.

Some facts I do not know the answer to but wish I did: How well did Savita or her husband Praveen know Irish abortion law? What support did she and her husband have during the miscarriage? What influenced the decisions made by the medical personnel treating Savita? What had occurred in prior incidents when other women had come to the hospital in the midst of a miscarriage? What are the repercussions for denying a patient the necessary treatment? Who provides illegal abortions in Ireland? If a woman is unable to travel to the UK for an abortion, how does she access these non-medical and likely unsanitary and unsafe illegal abortion providers? What are the medical providers who treated Savita thinking and feeling now? When they talk with their beloveds at night, what do they say about this story?

Hearing about Savita’s autopsy report, we learn that her death was caused by septicaemia, and E.coli ESBL. However, these conditions were caused not by the miscarriage she was experiencing, but by a miscarriage of the law. By delaying the one treatment that would have likely saved Savita’s life: an abortion. I am certainly no expert on Irish abortion law, but after some searching I’ve learned that: Despite the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which not only made abortion illegal but also punishable, since 1992, Ireland explicitly allows abortion in order to save a women’s life.

Ah yes. The law has been adjusted (20 years ago!), but public opinion, provider knowledge and attitudes and skills and training…take time to change. The systems in place to prevent women from receiving abortions (including the kind that save their lives) has been around much longer. Maybe medical providers were uncertain, unskilled or afraid. Change takes time. Eventually, the miscarriage was removed from Savita’s body, but by then it was too late. Too much time had passed.

It is not the law itself, but the interpretation of the law that determines whether it is followed. The law is a blunt instrument, and when applied without clear interpretation, without ample knowledge by those affected, the results are often tragic.

This also presents an example of how a geographical location and its associated laws supersede nationality and religion. Because of the borders a cartographer drew around this land, our rules are different from those of the land next door. Rights you had back home are no longer accessible to you. It didn’t matter that Savita wasn’t Catholic, and wasn’t from Ireland. The decision-makers had decided long before she arrived.



3 thoughts on “Ruminations on Savita Halappanavar’s Death: The Difference Between The Law and Its Application

  1. This was a great analysis of the case. When I first heard of the story, I thought it occurred long ago in the past, and they were remembering her death. When I realized this just happened, my heart sank. I’m glad you took the time to understand that the laws say that it is acceptable in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. I also like your explanation of how her destiny (due to law) was determined before her. This case brings up so many ethical questions, and hopefully the healthcare community can make a positive progression from here. However, I really do feel for her husband and family.

  2. Pingback: Ksenia DV | Remembering Dr. Tiller 4 Years Later

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