Savita Halappanavar’s Death Indicative of a Larger Problem

by Mary Pappalardo, Writing Intern


In the wake of the recent election, we may be inclined to celebrate a huge victory for women. And why shouldn’t we? Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, responsible for reprehensible comments regarding rape, both lost in their bids for Senate seats, New Hampshire elected an all-female delegation to Congress, and the next Congress will have more women than ever before (20 in the Senate and 77 in the House of Representatives). Certainly we should look at our current moment in history and recognize the strides that have been made by and for women. This moment, though, should not be treated as an end result that is satisfactory, and we should not rest on our laurels.

On October 28, a 31-year-old woman in Ireland passed away, after coming into the hospital a week earlier. Savita Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, came into the University hospital in Galway complaining of back pain. Upon arrival, it was discovered that she was miscarrying. Over the next three days, she asked for a medical termination, due to the severe pain she was experiencing as a result of the miscarriage. Her requests were repeatedly denied, because the fetus maintained a heartbeat. The laws in Ireland regarding abortion are murky – the country’s politics were largely influenced by the Catholic Church until the 1980s, and since then anti-abortion sentiment has been earnest enough to dissuade government from legislating strongly one way or another. In 1992, a court decision stated that abortion was legal, in the case of the woman’s life being at risk. The vague wording of the legislation is problematic, as it does not strictly define the circumstances that would qualify as “life at risk.”

The fetus was removed after the heartbeat stopped, but days later Halappanavar died from septicemia, a poisoning of the blood. While the cause of the septicemia is still under investigation, many are concerned that the prolonged presence of the fetus was the root of the medical complications that led to Halappanavar’s death. Protests have been widespread, and government leaders in Ireland have acknowledged that it is time for more definitive legislation in regards to health concerns and abortion.

It may seem strange to address this incident here, as it happened in a different country, with different laws. It’s hard to believe that the same incident would have happened had Halappanavar come to a hospital in the United States with the same issue. However, to dismiss this as a nonissue due to its lack of immediate proximity to the United States is to sanction the kind of thinking that allows for vague legislation and subjective medical treatment. Condemnation of the hospital’s actions is maybe polemical, because the decisions were informed by the doctrine of a religion, but to avoid commentary because of this is careless. The legislation that played a part in Halappanavar’s death reflects a general attitude that a woman’s life can sometimes be forfeit, depending on the situation. That this way of thinking persists reflects a larger reluctance to fully commit to the reproductive rights of women. Despite happening an ocean away, Ireland’s controversy implicates us all. Until the universal discourse surrounding women’s rights is devoid of the kind of ambiguity that allows such tragedies to happen, then we cannot truly have won the victory for women’s rights. So while it is important to reflect on the progress that has been made, we owe it to women everywhere to make it known that we will not grow complacent, but rather are renewed in our dedication to winning a true and meaningful equality.