A rally in Dublin, Ireland, in memory of Savita Halappanavar
A young woman turns in her ballot on Election Day 2012

A rally in Dublin, Ireland, in memory of Savita Halappanavar

BANGALORE, India (WOMENSENEWS)–When Savita Halappanavar, 31, went into Galway Hospital in Ireland in the last week of October, she could not have realized that her subsequent death would raise protests and controversies worldwide.

A dentist of Indian origin, Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she developed complications and was told by the doctors at the hospital that she was miscarrying.

Her request for a termination of the pregnancy was, however, turned down by the medical team attending on her, on the grounds that they could detect a fetal heartbeat, and that Ireland, as a Catholic country, forbade abortions. After three days of pain and suffering, Halappanavar died of blood poisoning on Oct. 28.

Discussions of the Millennium Development Goal of reducing global maternal mortality rates by 75 percent by 2015 have focused on women in developing countries, especially in Asia, who die of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

India has one of the world’s worst rates of maternal mortality. True.

But had Halappanavar stayed in her home state of Karnataka in south India, instead of being based in Ireland, she would have lived — abortion is legal in India under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971.

Halappanavar’s husband Praveen, an engineer employed in Ireland — who is reportedly so devastated by the tragedy he has been unable to bring himself to return to the home where he shared a life with his wife — demanded a public inquiry into the circumstances that resulted in his wife being denied the medical attention that would have saved her life. He also announced plans to take his case to the European Court as he had lost confidence in Ireland’s Health and Safety Executive (which had promised to “look into the case”).

Impartial Probe Requested

Amnesty International took up the case with the Irish Ministry of Health, seeking an impartial probe into the death.

Street demonstrations in Galway and Dublin saw over 10,000 placard-carrying protesters and the media in India have focused on the case too, seeking comments from her husband and Halappanavar’s parents.

Accusations and counter-accusations flew thick in the wake of Halappanavar’s death. While Catholic Bishop Bill Murphy claimed that the case was “being hijacked by the pro-choice lobby,” others cited a 1992 Supreme Court judgment that ruled that abortion was permitted in “limited circumstances” if there was a “real risk to the mother’s life.”

Ireland’s prime minister claimed that the husband was “not co-operating in the investigation.” The husband, in turn, was outraged that the hospital records he was given contained no mention of the couple’s request (reiterated twice) for a termination, although their trivial requests — for tea and toast, an extra blanket — were on record.

A month after Halappanavar’s death, the committee set up by the government released a report that included suggestions for amendments to the existing law on abortions. The government followed up with an assurance that existing ambiguities in the law would be resolved by year end.

Rights Groups Outraged

Indian women’s groups have expressed outrage over Halappanavar’s death.

Donna Fernandes of Vimochana
, a leading women’s group in Karnataka state (where Halappanavar’s parents, Mahadevi and Andanappa, live) said that, “Both lives, the mother’s and that of the child she was carrying, were in danger in this case. But how can anyone condone inaction in saving the pregnant woman’s life, when she was already miscarrying?”

Indian women’s rights activists point out that this case reflects one dimension of the pervasive view that females are “secondary citizens,” whatever the cultural context.

At a two-day international seminar on Millennium Development Goals held at Harvard Law School in 2010, former President of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson declared that “becoming pregnant was a health risk” and that “not addressing the issue amounts to human rights violation, no less.”

Navanetham Pilley, U.N. commissioner for human rights, concurred at the same plenary session that “not addressing women’s medical needs erodes their right to life.”

Global discussions on maternal mortality rates focus on issues such as birth attendance by skilled personnel. While that is undoubtedly important in the rural areas of developing countries like India, here was a woman, a medical professional herself, working in the West, who lost her life not because she could not access adequate medical help but because of a law that feminists have been opposing for a long time, as it discriminates against the female, although it is the male who makes a woman pregnant.

Laws, while necessary, need to be seen in conjunction with equity and the sanctity of all life — not exempting those of mothers — if we are to prevent a repetition of this death.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is an award-winning Indian journalist-columnist-author specializing in gender and development.

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