Savita’s Case Reveals Narrowness of “Catholic” Law in an Increasingly Borderless World

See all our coverage of the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar here.

When the young woman lay in agony in the hospital late last month, there should have been nothing standing between her and an emergency medical intervention. But instead, what stood between Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year-old, Indian-born dentist, and the Irish doctor treating her, was a dangerously wide grey area that has long hovered over Ireland’s constitution. As she suffered through complications stemming from a miscarriage, she begged for an abortion. It was denied, reportedly because the fetal heartbeat was still present. Her husband later recalled that Savita was told by a medical consultant that an abortion would be impossible because Ireland “is a Catholic Country.”

That exchange, seared in her aggrieved family’s mind, lay bare the medieval nature of one of the Western hemisphere’s harshest abortion bans. Savita, a Hindu born in India, argued that she was “neither Irish nor Catholic.” None of that mattered, because Ireland’s anti-abortion law, as it was interpreted by her medical provider, trumped questions of both bodily sovereignty and cultural difference.

Savita’s case was one of countless pregnancies across Ireland in which a woman’s fate may come down to a subjective medical assessment colored by “conscience.” To qualify under Ireland’s near-total abortion ban, Savita’s life was apparently deemed not sufficiently endangered—until the two heartbeats ended after days of crippling pain, leaving both the fetus and the mother dead, the latter of sep­ticaemia.

Savita’s death has set off a wave of protests—not just among pro-choice activists in Ireland but also Ireland’s Indian immigrant community and in her home country. Two official investigations into the medical decisions leading up to Savita’s death are pending. Even the Indian government has gotten involved, with a meeting between the Indian ambassador to Ireland and the Irish foreign minister.

Yet Savita’s tragedy isn’t about her Indian identity per se; it points to the barriers facing all women in Ireland. The unwritten religious subtext of the policy—“cruelty disguised as piety,” in the words of one columnist—effectively places the bodies of both Catholic and non-Catholic women, citizens and migrants alike, under a sweeping, vague rule at odds with rights enshrined in international law.

The main legal guidance for the abortion ban is the case of X, involving a 14 year-old rape victim who was blocked from traveling to England for an abortion. The court set the medical threshold for abortion as “real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother.” The lack of concrete legislation on the standard has left the the one narrow avenue for legal abortion mostly in the hands of doctors. For a woman ineligible for a medically necessary abortion, virtually the only safe option is to travel to the United Kingdom or another country to terminate her pregnancy.

In light of the various legal challenges women have brought against the restrictions, the UN Human Rights Committee and the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner have criticized the government’s failure to comply with international human rights standards and clarify the ban through legislation. Savita’s death seems poised to intensify public pressure on Irish lawmakers.

Mairead Enright, a legal scholar at the University of Kent, said the political stagnation over the past twenty years shows that “certain kinds of public religious interests are being given a privilege which does not match the level of support or membership that they have in the actual population.”

How many women have, in the last 20 years, been denied not only basic reproductive choice, but even access to medically necessary abortion, because of a draconian legal rationale or the biased opinion of a doctor? Savita was an educated professional. Less-privileged women may have even fewer options when it comes to negotiating medical care, and virtually none if they can’t afford to travel abroad to circumvent the ban.

Savita’s case also reveals how immigrant status can underscore the policy’s social parochialism.

Commentator Gerald Howlin wrote in the Irish Examiner, “The cultural colonialism and condescension that characterised our attitudes to people of other races from the developing world has been witheringly turned back on us.”

But the cost is ultimately borne by anyone with womb. The socioeconomic divisions that strafe the prospects of a woman’s reproductive future are deepened by the restrictions established in the case of X.

According to the Irish Family Planning Association, the costs of terminating pregnancy overseas often total 1000 euros, the process of obtaining a visa adds additional burdens:

Women and girls who experience most difficulty are those who are already marginalised and disadvantaged, those with little or no income, women with care responsibilities, women with disabilities, women with mental illness, women experiencing violence, young women and women of uncertain residency status.

An immigrant woman seeking asylum may be further hindered by the hardships of wading through the asylum bureaucracy, forced to scrape by on meager state subsidies and without decent access to reproductive health care.

“Restricting this right for most people, restricting it for a right to travel–that has always raised issues of class and race and poverty,” said Enright.

The reproductive justice question resonates beyond Ireland; in the United States, immigrant women, women of color, and other marginalized groups see their reproductive health and choice constrained by both legal barriers and poverty, as well as linguistic and cultural divides. Undocumented women especially are either barred or sharply deterred from seeking family planning services.

Perhaps the one positive aspect to Savita’s tragedy is that it has further entwined Ireland’s reproductive rights movement with an international struggle for reproductive choice and health. The plight of the Halappanavars indirectly highlights the narrowness of a “Catholic” law in an increasingly borderless world. The question now is whether the global valence of a woman’s death can inspire a national reckoning. 

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  • irisheddieohara

    I find it the height of reprehensible behavior to use the tragedy of this poor woman’s death to advance your own personal agenda.  The facts of the matter are much more complicated than you have indicated.  We know that Savita had a case of blood poisoning.  We also know that abortion is not a treatment for septicaemia,  despite your rush to determine, with neither warrant nor medical licensure, that it is.  It has, in fact  been pointed out several times in editorials, press releases, blog posts and hundreds of comments boxes both Catholic and non-Catholic – that abortion is not a medical treatment for either miscarriage or for severe systemic infections and no one has any idea whether Savita Halappanavar really wanted an abortion, or whether “early induction” of labour would have saved her life.

    Mr. Debashish Chakravarti may have revealed more about his own country’s problems than Ireland’s when he issued a statement today claiming, with no more evidence than anyone else has, that Savita Halappanavar “would still be alive if she had been treated in India.” Since when does a diplomatic attaché tell the host country which laws to overturn?

    Perhaps someone just forgot to show Mr. Chakravarti the report by the World Health Organisation showing that Ireland, with its abortion restrictions, has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world, one that is vastly better than India’s.

    How much better? The WHO’s document shows that from data gathered up to 2005, Ireland had one maternal death. Yes, one. India had 450 per 100,000 live births for a total of about 117,000. Under India’s current law allowing abortion virtually on demand, about 11 million children are (officially reported) killed by abortion annually – just under two and half times the entire population of the Irish Republic – and around 20,000 women die of complications related to these legal abortions.

    But calm deliberation on medical, legal or demographic facts has never been the M.O. of abortion lobbyists or their supporters in media or parliaments, and the country is in an uproar with the media/abortion lobby demanding legislation, right NOW, to legalise abortion. Pro-life people I’ve spoken to in Ireland fear that the pressure may prove too much for the waffling and half-hearted pro-life Irish politicians.


    Note well that in Mrs. Halapanavar’s case, a miscarriage was underway. So, try as they might, abortion advocatescan’t pin this one onto Ireland’s pro-life lawsNor can they pin this on the Catholic Church’s moral teachings, for one because this was a state and not a private Catholic university, and for another because Catholic moral teaching includes the principle of double effect. Under the latter, treatment to the mother would be allowed, even if it resulted in the expedited death of the baby  

    Unfortunately, Mrs. Halappanavar’s tragic death is being exploited—a personal tragedy is being used like a “political football”—to advance a cause which does not even guarantee that future Halappanavars’ lives would be saved. It is arguable that inducing early labor might have helped to save Mrs. Halappanaavar’s life, and even that it might have given the best—albeit very slim, approaching nil—chance for the baby to survive. As Christina Dunigan has commented,

    Once an infection like that takes hold it’s very difficult to get under control. That’s why it’s important in an obstetric infection to get the baby out as quickly as possible.

    I could see the ban on doing it while there’s still a fetal heartbeat if you’re doing an extraction abortion, which involves dismembering a live baby in-utero. That’s unspeakably cruel to the baby — and I can’t see how it could help the mother to have the baby’s body converted to lots of sharp bone shards to scratch up her uterine walls and give the infection an even quicker way to get into her bloodstream.

    Inducing labor or doing a forceps-assisted delivery makes perfect sense. It removes the baby from what is, essentially, a toxic environment of infected amniotic fluid, and gives the child the chance to know being held and loved before he or she dies.

    So this whole thing strikes me as just utterly bizarre

     In other words,  shame on you for suggesting that the killing of the unborn is a medical remedy for blood poisoning.  And in the end, aren’t you glad your Mother didn’t believe in abortion?


    Edward A. Hara


  • crowepps

    DUBLIN (AP) — The widower of an Indian woman who died in an Irish hospital after being refused an abortion plans to sue Ireland‘s government in the European Court of Human Rights.

    Praveen Halappanavar confirmed his decision Thursday through his lawyer, Gerard O’Donnell.

    His wife Savita died Oct. 28 in a hospital in Galway, western Ireland, one week after being admitted for severe pain amid a miscarriage.

    Doctors refused to perform an abortion for three days while the 17-week-old fetus still had a heartbeat. Savita fell gravely ill after the dead fetus was removed and then suffered gradual organ failure. A coroner ruled she died from blood poisoning.

    The case has forced Ireland to re-examine its two-decade failure to pass any laws governing when women can receive abortions to save their own lives.;_ylt=Am5EEr5t0q9.8_3DTPT6Qa3zUc0F;_ylu=X3oDMTVxOGk4YmYwBGNjb2RlA2dtcHRvcDEwMDBwb29sd2lraXVwcmVzdARtaXQDQXJ0aWNsZSBNaXhlZCBMaXN0IE5ld3MgZm9yIFlvdSB3aXRoIE1vcmUgTGluawRwa2cDY2IzY2M0NzktNmJmOS0zYjAyLWJhYjAtZWIxYTU4NWJhMDE1BHBvcwMyBHNlYwNuZXdzX2Zvcl95b3UEdmVyAzUwM2M3NzIxLTNhNTQtMTFlMi1iOWZlLThkOTBhZGIwMWU4ZQ–;_ylg=X3oDMTJ1NjY2ajExBGludGwDdXMEbGFuZwNlbi11cwRwc3RhaWQDM2I2ZTY5ZjktYWJlMS0zMDllLWJhMzktYzU0ZGI3ZGJjNjRmBHBzdGNhdANob21lfHRyYXZlbARwdANzdG9yeXBhZ2U-;_ylv=3

  • give-em-hell-mary

    Mother-killing LIAR, abortion IS the treatment for blood poisoning and miscarriage!  Such abortions can mean simply early induced labor, which usually result in fetal death, but Savita’s “doctors” refused to give her antibiotics, pain killers or induce labor because their Catholic extremism valued unviable fetal “heartbeats” over her own right to life.  You pro-pedophile priest misogynist monsters use all women as throwaway footballs for your criminal Munchausen by Proxy pedophile priest death cult terrorism.  You should be in jail for using fetuses instead of fists to maim and murder us.  We’re not your incubating slaves!

  • give-em-hell-mary

    RCC-raped Ireland has a high covered-up rate of maternal deaths and injuries blamed on “other causes” because of medical and religious misogyny that excludes delayed complications.  This is also true of the U.S. because of lax CDC and state reporting laws that let hospitals and fetal idolators off the hook.  I know/knew many women whose childbirth-caused deaths took a few to many years to kick officially in.  Also, you should google the grisly symphysiotomies forced on Irish women to avoid “contraceptive” but safer c-sections.

    And I’ll bet you have sex scandals in your closet — adult women haters like you always do!

  • irisheddieohara

    Who did what to you?  I don’t think in all my years on the Internet I have seen someone with such a high level of anger.  I would urge you to look inside yourself and find forgiveness or that anger is going to eventually cause your body to kill itself.