Savita † (2012) – Ireland

A death that shocked a family, a hospital, and a country

Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, died on October 28, 2012 at University Hospital Galway in Ireland of sepsis after she miscarried at 17 weeks. She was denied a termination due to Irish law giving “equal” rights to fetuses and pregnant women, but inadequate care and comments by the health professionals indicate that religious beliefs against abortion may have also been a factor.

Savita went to the hospital with her husband Praveen on Oct 21 complaining about back pain. Her water broke early on the morning of Oct 22 and Savita asked if anything could be done to save the baby. She was told that miscarriage was inevitable. On Oct 23, knowing the baby would not survive, she asked for a termination, and was told it was not legally possible in Ireland while there is a fetal heartbeat. A midwife manager attempted to calm Savita and said the termination could not be carried out because it’s a “Catholic thing”.  Over the next day, despite repeated requests for a termination by Savita and her husband – to which her doctor responded by saying the law forbids it and they don’t do terminations because it’s a “Catholic country” (which the doctor later denied saying) – Savita’s condition deteriorated while medical staff failed to properly monitor her while waiting the fetus to die. She had clear signs of infection and sepsis, which her doctor ignored. Finally, the fetal heartbeat stopped and Savita was transferred to the delivery room where she spontaneously delivered a dead baby on Oct 24. By then it was too late – Savita died four days later due to complications of sepsis that had already ravaged her system prior to the delivery.

Savita’s husband Praveen went to the media to protest his wife’s death. He said: “We were always kept in the dark. If Savita would [have] known her life was at risk, she would have jumped off the bed to seek another hospital. We were never told about it. It is horrendous, it is barbaric and inhumane the way Savita was treated in that hospital.” His complaints triggered an inquest, which in 2013 found that “medical misadventure” and mismanagement of Savita’s treatment led to her death. Irish medical staff failed to recognize “increasing risk to the life of the mother”. Irish law was also called into question, as there were no guidelines for doctors to follow as to when an abortion could be done to save a woman’s life. Regardless, medical staff prioritized the fetus over care of Savita, and could have done an earlier termination to save her life without breaking the law.

Abortion in Ireland: The Injustice and Day-to-Day Terror Faced by Countless Women, by Sarah Fisher, Rewire, Nov 28, 2012
Timeline: a death that shocked a family, a hospital and a country, The Journal, Apr 20, 2013
Final Report of Health Service Executive, June 2013
Praveen Halappanavar: ‘Savita’s treatment was horrendous, barbaric and inhumane’, The Journal, April 19, 2013
You Can’t Have it Both Ways: The Interpretation of Catholic Health Policy and the Consequences for Pregnant Women, by Marge Berer, Rewire, Jan 22, 2013