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Woman's Death by Denial of Life-Saving Abortion in Ireland Prompts Fury

Vigils held across Ireland on Wednesday following death of Savita Halappanavar

Common Dreams staff

photo: Cork Independent

Thousands hit the streets in Ireland on Wednesday following the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied a life saving abortion at a Galway hospital.

A massive crowd held a vigil for the 31-year-old in front of parliament on Wednesday evening, and more vigils were held in other cities across Ireland.

"What happened to this woman was nothing short of medieval," independent Socialist member of parliament Clare Daly told the crowd outside parliament, Europe Online reports.

On Ireland's restrictive abortion laws, Reuters reports: "Irish law does not specify under what circumstances the threat to the life or health of the mother is high enough to justify a termination, leaving doctors to decide. Critics say this means doctors' personal beliefs can play a role."

Describing the events that led to Halappanavar's death, The Nation's Jessica Valenti writes:

The 31-year-old Indian dentist, who was seventeen weeks pregnant, went to the hospital with severe back pain. Within hours of being admitted doctors told her she was miscarrying. The law in Ireland—which only allows for abortion if a woman's life is in danger—prevented Savita from being able to end her pregnancy and her excruciating pain because there was still a fetal heartbeat present.

As Savita's condition worsened over the course of three days, she and her husband begged doctors to end the doomed pregnancy. They refused, saying “this is Catholic country.”

Savita countered, “I am neither Irish nor Catholic.” Still, she was denied. That night she vomited repeatedly and collapsed in a restroom.

The following day, the fetus’s heartbeat finally stopped and was removed by the doctors. But it was too late. Savita was transferred to the ICU where she died of sceptic shock—the result of carrying a dying fetus expelling poison into her blood.

Savita died in terrible pain, over the course of days, begging for a medical procedure that would save her life.

Rachel Donnelly of Galway Pro-Choice slammed the restraints on doctors that allowed Halappanavari's death to happen.

"This was an obstetric emergency which should have been dealt with in a routine manner. Yet Irish doctors are restrained from making obvious medical decisions by a fear of potentially severe consequences. As the European Court of Human Rights ruled, as long as the 1861 Act remains in place, alongside a complete political unwillingness to touch the issue, pregnant women will continue to be unsafe in this country," stated Donnelly.

Long-time reproductive rights activist Susan Yanow writes that Halappanavar's death "is a grim reminder about the impact of abortion restrictions on women's lives."

Indeed, Halappanavar's case is by no means isolated.

RH Reality Check's Jodi Jacobson writes:

Just this past summer, a teen in the Dominican Republic died because she was denied chemotherapy for cancer. Countless others die every day, but without press coverage we just don't see or hear about them. As Ipas notes, Women in El Salvador and Mexico have been put in jail for both abortions and "suspicious" miscarriages. Young girls in Argentina and Brazil, victims of violence and incest, have been denied safe abortion care. A total abortion ban in Nicaragua means that not only do women die for lack of safe abortion care, but that untold numbers of women and girls who are the victims of violence are forced to endure pregnancy and childbearing against their will. 

While these cases are outside the U.S., feminist writer Katha Pollit notes, "If you think it couldn’t happen in the United States, you haven’t been paying attention."  She continues:

After all, in 2010, Sister Margaret McBride, an administrator in a Catholic Hospital in Phoenix, was fired and excommunicated after she approved a first-trimester abortion for a woman with life-threatening pulmonary hypertension. What happens in Catholic hospitals when there’s no Sister Margaret willing to risk the bishops’ wrath? With conscience clauses expanding to cover not just individual doctors but whole hospitals, a pregnant woman may find her care is being dictated not by standard health protocols but by a religion she doesn’t even follow. Savita was a Hindu, after all. What about her conscience?

Jacobson also remarks on the growing evidence of abortion restrictions in the U.S.:

And if they have their way, anti-choice fanatics in the United States want this country to join these others in denying women their very personhood.  There is H.R. 3, the Let Women Die Act, passed in the last Congress by the rabidly anti-woman House majority. There is the "Sanctity Of Human Life [As Long As You Are Not Female] Act," so strongly supported by recent Vice Presidential candidate and current congressman, Paul Ryan (R-WI). There are heartbeat bans, and bans on medication abortion, laws that force doctors to lie to women, and laws that force women to undergo unnecessary trans-vaginal and abdominal ultrasounds. There are attacks on Planned Parenthood and Title X, past and future. And in addition to the terrorism and accosting of women in evidence wherever safe abortion care is provided, there is harassment at clinics that do not even provide abortions.

Yanow concludes grimly:  "We have a sobering lesson to learn from Ireland - when doctor's medical judgement is compromised by restrictive abortion laws, it is women's health and women's lives that suffer."

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