The Senseless Death of Savita Halappanavar

15 Nov

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.

Savita Halappanavar

14 Responses to “The Senseless Death of Savita Halappanavar”

  1. annie November 15, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    i’m sitting in a coffee shop, taking a break from my paperwork, and now bawling while reading this post. i read the news item about savita a few days ago and was so numbed with helplessness, i couldn’t even bring myself to repost, to make a personal comment. it’s just so awful and hurts so much to think about. thank you for putting real words to how awful it is, because i know i couldn’t. thank you thank you thank you for this.

    • Vanessa November 15, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

      How about Tonya Reaves? Where is your outrage about her senseless death?

      • bellejarblog November 15, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

        I am deeply saddened by Tonya Reaves’ death. I’ve read in other sources that she died due to medical negligence, after not receiving proper post-abortion care. It looks like her death has been ruled an accident, but still – if she died due to medical negligence, I am outraged. I hold doctors and nurses who perform abortions to just as high a standard as any other doctors and nurses, and I am willing to condemn them if and when they screw up and their actions cause bodily harm. That doesn’t mean that I think abortion is wrong, though.

        Here’s the difference between what happened to Tonya and what happened to Savita – Tonya chose to go through with that medical procedure, she signed consent and release forms, and was in agreement with what the doctors did to her. If they neglected her after her surgery, then that is a different matter.

        Savita did not choose to remain pregnant, and what the doctors did to her was against her will. That is the difference.

      • Audra Williams November 16, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

        People die from safe and legal medical procedures all the time. The solution to that is not to make those procedures illegal.

    • bellejarblog November 15, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

      I love you, buddy

  2. Pam November 15, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    I – a total stranger to Savita – feel such rage at this senseless injustice done to her….I can only imagine how devastated her family much be. This is just so incredibly tragic, sad and wrong.

    • bellejarblog November 15, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

      Agreed. I can barely process what happened to her, and what she must have gone through.

  3. Vanessa November 15, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    I don’t believe Tonya Reaves was in agreement with having her uterus pierced, and then bleeding to death. She was likely told how “safe” these legal abortions are, and that the paperwork was just a formality. I also don’t see how her perforated uterus, (which occurred in a LEGAL clinic!) was due to lack of AFTER abortion care.

    Although the final medical investigation and report is not in yet, and many pro abortion news reporters are putting their own spin on it, it looks as though not administering the antibiotics she needed quickly enough were the cause of Savita’s death, and according to Irish medical protocol she should have rec’d that regardless of whether she was pregnant or not.
    Abortion carries the risk of sepsis on it’s own, and, even here in Canada, where abortion is embraced, they do not always rush to remove the baby immediately during a miscarriage, unless the mother is hemorrhaging.

    • bellejarblog November 16, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

      Abortions, when properly performed, are safe. A friend of mine had a similar thing happen during a c-section, does that mean that we should ban caesareans? People die during routine medical procedures, but that doesn’t mean that we should outlaw them.

      What this is about is consent. Tonya Reaves consented to having an abortion; Savita did not consent to remaining pregnant. What happened to Tonya is tragic, but the two cases are in no way comparable. Surely you can see that?

      Many pro-life reporters are putting their own spin on this issue as well – I have seen plenty of articles saying that the septicaemia was not pregnancy-related, etc. We don’t know for sure yet if it was, of course, but septicaemia is, in fact, a fairly common occurrence with incomplete miscarriages. The fact that Savita had been fully dilated and leaking fluid for several days, and the fact that her cervix was swollen, indicate that that was likely the cause. Even if it wasn’t the cause, the doctors did not do everything in their power to help her – standard procedure in a case like this, ESPECIALLY when the pregnancy is non-viable, is to remove the fetus.

      Yes, septicaemia can happen with abortions. It can happen with miscarriages, and with full-term births. That’s not what we’re debating here. What we are talking about is someone with a non-viable pregnancy who specifically asked, repeatedly, to have that pregnancy terminated.

  4. eden November 16, 2012 at 2:08 am #

    Thank you, Anne.

    I just read both your post and this article:

    It gives a really good response to the “but she might have died anyway!” argument, which is that it doesn’t matter. In every other instance, we “do everything medically possible for the patient to the point of pathology.” If it MIGHT have saved her life to terminate the pregnancy, if there was even a small but definite chance that it would save her, they were morally and medically obligated to do it. It was an option they had but that they avoided for completely non-medical reasons.

    But what hit home to me for the first time after reading it is that holy shit, this could happen to MY DAUGHTER. She’s got a whole life of having a uterus ahead of her, and there are people working hard to take away her autonomy over it. And I got so mad I started shaking, which is a very very rare thing for me.

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

      Yeah, it’s terrifying to think about this as something that could happen to the people you love, especially when those people are your KIDS. I mean, you know, those small people you are supposed to protect but, in a situation like this, probably wouldn’t be able to.

      p.s. that is an amazing article. thank you.

  5. theyellowblanket November 19, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

    This beautiful woman’s death is reprehensible.

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

      I know. I can barely wrap my mind around it.


  1. You Can’t Be Feminist And Anti-Choice « The Belle Jar - January 27, 2013

    […] I don’t understand why you would try to create legislature that is almost certainly going to be dangerous to the health of women, sometimes even leading to their deaths. […]

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