Savita Halappanavar’s Heartbreaking Death

News of Savita Halappanavar’s agonizing death in an Irish hospital from septicemia and E. Coli infection is all over the internet, and thank goodness, most people are heartbroken and angry. Everything about her death is heartbreaking and angering: the three days she spent in horrible pain, the seeming futility of her laboring when the pregnancy was not viable, the massive infection that should have had no place in a modern hospital, and Savita’s husband’s claim that he was told “This is a Catholic country” to explain why Ms. Halappanavar’s request for an abortion was denied. (University Hospital Galway, where she died, is not a Catholic hospital.)

Those who defend Ireland’s abortion ban have suggested that she may have died from the delayed administration of antibiotics, and not, strictly speaking, for lack of an abortion.

(Which… I mean, I’m not that sort of doctor. But this person is, and she says that the standard of care is “hastening delivery by the safest means possible.” My faltering understanding is that an open cervix and a ruptured amniotic sac meant that bacteria could invade her body quite easily, far more easily than if the cervix, mucus plug, and amniotic sac were intact. A delivery, or a dilation and extraction—of a non-viable pregnancy, remember—would stand a chance of staving off that infection. But yes, antibiotics would also be a grand idea, and presumably the investigation will look at that.) 

At the same time, one needs to keep in mind the history of Ireland’s abortion ban. In 1992, the Irish Supreme Court established the right of Irish women to have abortions if their lives were at risk. But the Irish government failed to create a process whereby a woman could show her life to be at risk and thus access a life-saving abortion… a failure for which the the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the government in 2010. Such legislation has still not been passed, though, and Irish Catholic bishops have supported a campaign to keep it from being passed.

Arguably, not having a simple and straightforward procedure whereby doctors could say “This lady might die if she doesn’t have an abortion, and no, she can’t travel to England!” cost crucial hours and days. No, we don’t know for sure. Just like we don’t know whether antibiotics alone might have saved her. But where there are only guesses—where we’re speculating on how wider social histories and values affect individual lives—it’s best to be evenhanded.

If such a hard stance against any abortion is supposed to be part of some broader “culture of life,” an across-the-board posture of welcoming the dependent and vulnerable, then let’s be honest about the costs: it may very well put women in lethal danger sometimes. If someone thinks that risk worth it, then they have made a certain calculation. They should say so.