If you are 17 weeks pregnant and you present with serious back pain at a hospital in a developed country, a country with an excellent record for maternal care, you don't expect to leave the hospital in a coffin. But that is precisely what happened to 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar.
The tragic story of Savita has broken today and there are assumptions being made left, right and centre as to whether an abortion might have saved her life. It is pointless for either prochoice or prolife people to complain that her death is being used as a political football. An embittered debate about Irish abortion law and the role of religion in Ireland were always going be to among the outcomes of this awful situation.
At the time of writing, this is the information we have available:
1. Savita presented at University Hospital, Galway, on Sunday, October 21, complaining of severe back pain.
2. Soon after she arrived at the hospital, it was determined that she was miscarrying.
3. It was determined that her 17-week-old foetus was not going to survive to full term but, despite Savita requesting an abortion, this request was refused because there was still a foetal heartbeat.
4. Savita's cervix was dilating and her uterus was leaking amniotic fluid. She spent at least three days in agony.
5. The foetus was finally removed once the heart stopped beating.
6. Savita's husband, Praveen, claims they were told she could not have an abortion while the heart was still beating because: "This is a Catholic country."
7. Ireland is not a "Catholic country." It has no official religion.
8. Savita was not given antibiotics until Tuesday, October 23.
9. By Saturday, October 27, Savita's heart, kidneys and liver failed.
10. Savita died of septicaemia in the early hours of Sunday, October 28.
We cannot be sure at this stage if Savita was suffering the initial back pain because of an infection or whether the infection occurred in hospital. But spending at least three days with a dilated cervix, leaking amniotic fluid, while in the throes of a miscarriage is certainly not conducive to remaining infection-free, that is certain. Based on the available information, Dr Jen Gunter*, an OB/GYN, tweeted this on Savita's case: "Infected uterus needs to be emptied. End of story."
Savita's family - and the women of Ireland - now have to wait for the findings of three investigations. As well as the hospital's own investigation, the national government's Health Service Executive will conduct a parallel investigation, as is standard practice when a pregnant woman dies in hospital, and the Galway coroner has also planned a public inquest.
If the investigations find that a timely abortion may have saved Savita's life, there will doubtless be calls from prochoice groups for legislative changes in Ireland. But careful reading of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland reveals that even under the current restrictive abortion laws, Savita could have been entitled to an abortion as soon as it was apparent that her pregnancy was not viable. In 1983, the Eighth Amendment added the following paragraph to the constitution:
"The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right."
So, based on that amendment, Savita's foetus did indeed have the right to life, but it was determined when she went to hospital that she was miscarrying and was not going to be able to carry the pregnancy to full term. The foetus was never going to become viable. Tragically, the "due regard to the equal right to life of the mother" part of the amendment does not appear to have been applied to Savita when hospital staff were making decisions. By telling her she could not have an abortion because Ireland is a "Catholic country", she got an invalid, non-medical excuse that completely ignored the country's constitution.**
Given that Savita was married and had recently celebrated a baby shower for what was clearly a wanted pregnancy, it is outrageous to suggest that she took the decision to request an abortion lightly. On the upside, hardcore conservative prolifers can't posthumously slut-shame her because she conceived in circumstances of which they approve, but that's not going to be of any comfort to the loved ones Savita has left behind.
A draft report into Savita's death says that by the time Savita presented at the hospital, it was too late to save the baby and that her infection was undiagnosed for three days. More here.
* More on this appalling case, with better medical knowledge than I possess, from Dr Jen Gunter: http://drjengunter.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/did-irish-catholic-law-or-malpractice-kill-savita-halappanavar/
** If you are in Ireland and want to take action in Ireland on abortion law, here is a useful link: http://www.nwci.ie/takeaction/legislate-for-x/
Image courtesy of www.kozzi.com