February 29, 2024

Ireland’s fiery abortion case ends in verdict of “medical misadventure”

The outcome of the official coroner’s inquest was that Ms Halappanavar died in University Hospital Galway as a result of “medical misadventure”.

“Ireland’s law and Catholic culture allowed Savita Halappanavar to die” was a typical headline over news last October that a 31-year-old pregnant woman died of septicaemia after pleading vainly with doctors to abort the child. There were demonstrations in the streets and fiery editorials calling for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland.

However, the outcome of the official coroner’s inquest was that Ms Halappanavar died in University Hospital Galway as a result of “medical misadventure”.

The jury unanimously agreed that the cause of death was septic shock from a highly toxic strain of E. coli bacteria, but it also accepted the coroner’s nine recommendations for improving hospital care. The first of these was that the Irish Medical Council should draft new guidelines on when doctors can intervene to save the life of a mother.

Savita’s husband, Praveen Halappanavar, said that he was not satisfied with the verdict and said that the way his wife had been treated was “horrendous, barbaric and inhumane”.

Dr Berry Kiely, of the Pro Life Campaign, a lobby group, said that it was “little short of shameless” that Savita Halappanavar’s death had been exploited to agitate for a change in Ireland’s abortion laws. “It is now clear from the facts presented at the inquest,” he said, “that a number of what the inquest terms ‘systems failures’ and communications shortcomings significantly delayed the moment at which the medical team recognised the seriousness of her condition and carried out the appropriate medical intervention.”

Mr Halappanaver has claimed that he was told that his wife could not get an abortion “because Ireland is a Catholic country”. This remark was universally interpreted as offensive religious chauvinism. It emerged that a midwife, Ann Maria Burke, did say this to Savita. However, she told the inquest that she was only trying to console her and explain why the hospitals were reluctant to abort the child, not to insult her.

Many observers have argued that Savita’s death proves that Ireland needs to change its laws on abortion. Writing in The Guardian, Dr Emer O’Toole, of the University of London, for instance, described Ireland as “a little dot of backwardness in a sea of progressive reproductive values”. But it is far from certain that legalisation would save lives. Despite — or perhaps because of– Ireland’s ban, its maternal death rate (6 per 100,000) is one of the lowest in the world, lower, in fact, than countries where it is freely available, like Australia (7), England (12), New Zealand (15), or the United States (21). 

Michael Cook
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