In the early hours of Sunday, October 28th, Savita Halappanavar died a death that was, most likely, totally preventable. She died because the hospital where she was a patient denied her a lifesaving procedure, one that she requested, a procedure that she would have likely been granted nearly anywhere else in the western world.
Savita’s death, which many believe was brought about because of her doctor’s refusal to terminate her pregnancy, has sparked worldwide outrage. Ireland and India in particular, the former being the country where she died and the latter being the country of her birth, have seen massive vigils, memorials and protests in the wake of her death. What happened to Savita, and the role that her doctors’ decisions may or may not have played in her death, are currently under official investigation. Ireland’s Minister for Health, James Reilly, has confirmed that the findings of that investigation will be part of an “abortion report” brought before the Irish Cabinet, although experts estimate that it will be 2013 before their government takes any kind of official stance on the issue.
There has been a lot of talk, and much conjecture, about what happened to Savita Halappanavar in the last days of her life. Here are the bare facts:
Savita, who was 17 weeks pregnant, was admitted to University Hospital Galway in western Ireland on October 21st. She presented with severe back pain, and it was quickly determined that she was actively miscarrying. Although doctors were still able to find a fetal heartbeat, Savita’s cervix was fully dilated, and she was leaking amniotic fluid. She was told that there was nothing they could do to prevent a miscarriage or save her child; she was still 7 weeks away from viability, the point at which a fetus could, with serious medical intervention, live outside of its mother, although the survival rate for babies born at that gestational age is only 50%.
After enduring over 24 hours of debilitating pain, Savita asked to have her pregnancy terminated. Although it was a wanted pregnancy, she had been assured repeatedly that the baby would not survive, and she was in too much pain to continue miscarrying naturally. She was denied a termination of pregnancy, however, and told that as long as there was a fetal heartbeat, the hospital would do nothing to help end her pregnancy. Savita was told that because Ireland was a Catholic country, doctors could not terminate her pregnancy; although she explained that she was neither Irish nor Catholic, her requests continued to be rebuffed and ignored.
On Wednesday, October 24th, the fetus died. Savita, who had been growing increasingly ill, spiking a high fever and vomiting until she collapsed in a washroom, was rushed into surgery in order to have the fetus removed. That night, her condition worsened and she was moved to intensive care. She remained sedated and critical but stable until Saturday, October 27th, when her heart, liver and kidneys began to fail. She died early the next morning, with septicaemia given as her cause of death. She was 31.
Abortion is illegal in the Republic of Ireland. Termination of a pregnancy is permitted in cases where it’s necessary to save the life of the mother, but what happened to Savita demonstrates that this idea isn’t always practiced. And anyway, how does a doctor determine if a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy? What fool-proof test does he perform? None, because there isn’t one that exists. The doctor has to base his decision on his own, faulty, human judgment, and when a life hangs in the balance, that just isn’t enough.
Another part of the issues surrounding abortion legislation is that there seems to be a lot of magical thinking about how women’s bodies work; people think that pregnancy does not happen in cases of “legitimate” rape, or that, in cases of miscarriage, the body will complete the task naturally and on its own, without the need of any kind of intervention. Maybe there are men who truly believe that the female body has superpowers, or maybe we’re all just so disposable and interchangeable to them that it doesn’t matter if we die during pregnancy or childbirth, because there will always be other women to take our places. Sometimes that’s how it feels, anyway.
To any of you out there who are anti-abortion, I honestly want to ask you: what good do these Irish laws do? They certainly don’t prevent abortions; in 2001, 7,000 Irish women travelled abroad in order to obtain safe, legal abortions. Not included in that number are the women who went to back-alley abortionists, the women who were exposed to unsafe situations and unclean medical instruments, the women who put their lives at risk in order to exercise their reproductive rights. Anti-abortion activists tell me that these laws are in place to protect unborn babies, that they are meant to save lives. These laws do not save lives. They end them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Savita’s last days must have been like – first, having to learn that her child, who was both loved and wanted, would not be born living. Then, devastated by the knowledge that her baby would die, being forced to continue her pregnancy while in agonizing pain. Savita was forced to listen to the heartbeat of her dying baby several times a day. She was forced to wait until that soft, speedy pulse faded away into nothing before something, anything would be done to save her life. She was forced to lie in a hospital bed and have her own bodily autonomy denied again and again. Savita died in a country that was not her own, for laws that were not her own, because of a religion that was not her own. She died frightened and despairing and in crippling pain, and for what? For nothing.
We talk a lot about how important safe, legal abortions mean for women, and rightfully so; what we rarely discuss is what safe, legal abortions mean for men. Savita’s husband, Praveen Halappanavar, lost both his wife and his child in the same week. The last time that Praveen spoke to his wife was shortly after the surgery to remove their dead child from her womb; her condition deteriorated so quickly afterwards that the hospital was forced to sedate her before they contacted him. She spent the rest of her short life sedated; he was never able to hear her voice again, or tell her that he loved her, or that he would miss her.
Reproductive rights are not just a women’s issue – they are everyone’s issue. What happened to Savita was not an accident. Her doctors did not do everything in their power to save her life. Her doctors did not respect her wishes with regards to her own body. What happened to Savita is tantamount to murder, slow, painful, terrifying murder.
Given the right set of laws, given the right government, Savita’s death is something that could happen to any woman, any family.
Please don’t let Savita’s death be meaningless; please fight for your rights, and for the rights of the women you love. Please help make sure that this never happens again, to any woman, for any reason. Please.