Savita Halappanavar’s death is personal to me.
No one knows for sure yet what happened to Savita Halappanavar. We know that she wanted to be pregnant, that she miscarried, and that the care she received did not save her life. It is important to push for medical accountability in such cases, and to demand a full investigation into whether protocols existed and were followed, and if the patient was subject to discriminatory harassment and remarks, as has been alleged. It is positive that an expert has been appointed to carry out such an investigation.
But we do not have to wait for the investigation to highlight what we already know about abortion in Ireland. For me, this knowledge is weighty and painful.
In 2009, I went to Ireland with a colleague to talk with women, medical providers, and government officials about the impact of Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws on women’s health and lives. No government official agreed to receive us despite multiple requests for meetings. This refusal was the backdrop of the desperation and sadness that was palpable in the voices and testimonies of all the women, doctors, social workers, and community educators we spoke to.
And here is what I learned.
I learned that the Irish government has yet to regulate access to life-saving abortions in Ireland, despite the fact that such medical interventions have been legal in that country for two decades. I learned that the legality of abortion where the pregnant women’s life is in danger was upheld by the Irish Supreme Court in 1992 and supported by a referendum that same year. So while abortion, generally, is criminalized in Ireland, women whose lives are threatened by their pregnancy are constitutionally entitled to have an abortion in Ireland.
And in 2010, I saw that the European Court on Human Rights berated the Irish government for not regulating access to life-saving abortion clearly, creating insecurity for medical providers and patients alike. In 2011 the United Nations Human Rights Council issued various recommendations to the same effect.
My research taught me that many medical providers in Ireland want clarity on when they can intervene and when they cannot. Some asked me how the government proposes they treat a woman who may or may not die as a result of her pregnancy. Should they tell her to come back when she was sure she was going to die? How would she know? And what if it was too late? Who would be responsible for such preventable deaths? In fact, during our research in 2009, and despite the fact that abortion in life-threatening cases had been legal for almost two decades, we were not able to find one single medical provider who had ever heard of a life-saving abortion taking place in Ireland.
But more than anything, I learned about the pain and fear pregnant women face when something is clearly wrong with their pregnancy and they know they can’t get care near home. I know this because they told me. Some told me with their heads bowed, others sitting straight up. Some told me calmly, others cried. They all spoke with quiet, sad voices about a society that does not see their suffering and a government that does not seem to care.
Savita Halappanavar’s death, however it happened and whomever (if anyone) is responsible for delivering substandard care, should serve as an opportunity for a deeper and more respectful conversation on this topic in Ireland.
Abortion is a medical intervention to which women need access, some to save their lives. This is not an opinion; it is a fact, evidenced by the thousands of women who travel from Ireland to the United Kingdom or mainland Europe to terminate pregnancies every year.
And knowing this, how can we not act?