Savita Halappanavar Death: Why the Ireland Abortion Tragedy Could Have Happened in the US


Last month, a Catholic hospital in Ireland refused to terminate the pregnancy of a woman suffering a complicated miscarriage. The woman, Savita Halappanavar, was 17 weeks pregnant with a wanted child. But when she came to the hospital with severe back pain and learned she was miscarrying, Halappanavar and her husband asked the doctors to abort the non-viable fetus to avoid further complications.

After three days of agonizing pain, Halappanavar died of septicemia, a consequence of her doctors’ inaction. Because the fetus still had a heartbeat, her doctors denied her the life-saving medical treatment she needed.

Halappanavar and her husband were told by doctors that they could not perform the abortion because Ireland is a Catholic country. However, according to Irish law, abortion is legal when a woman’s life is in danger. In 1992, the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that abortion could be administered when there is a “real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life. The case in point involved a 14-year-old rape victim who was eventually allowed to have an abortion because she was suicidal. However, in the two decades since the ruling, no legislation has been passed in Ireland to clarify abortion rights in the country. Therefore, Halappanavar’s doctors felt they could invoke Catholic “conscience rights” to deny her a life-saving procedure.

This is not an isolated incident. Earlier this year, a teen from the Dominican Republic was denied cancer treatment because her doctors discovered she was nine weeks pregnant and the DR has a strict abortion ban. She died of acute leukemia in August. In 2010, a nun in Arizona was excommunicated from the Catholic Church after she authorized a legal, life-saving abortion. The patient, a mother of five, was suffering heart failure and was too ill to be moved to another hospital.

46 states have laws in place that allow health care providers to refuse to provide abortion services. Health care providers in some states are also able to refuse to provide contraception, sterilization, and psychological treatment to LGBT individuals based on their religion, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has pushed for a broad, federal right to religious refusal. As the GOP pushes for more sweeping bans on abortion, like Ohio’s “heartbeat ban” or the myriad of Personhood amendments seen on ballots over the past two years, American women may soon have to worry about facing the same fate as the Irish.