“This is a Catholic Country”: The Tragedy of Savita Halappanavar by Georgia Butler

Like many of us, I woke up this morning to read the tragic news that a thirty one year old woman, Savita Halappanavar, had died from septicaemia on October 28th, having been rushed to University Hospital Galway over a week earlier presenting signs of miscarrying her seventeen week pregnancy. Despite seeing that she was leaking amniotic fluid, that her cervix was fully dilated, and that she was in extreme pain, medical staff refused to intervene and allowed her condition to worsen, to the point where she collapsed. According to her husband, Savita repeatedly asked that doctors perform surgery to remove the nonviable fetus, but she was told that as there was still a fetal heartbeat, nothing could be done: “This is a Catholic Country”. She spent a further two and a half days in agony before the fetal heartbeat stopped, whereupon surgery was performed to remove the pregnancy. Upon leaving surgery, she was rushed to the high dependency unit, where she died five days later.

I’m reticent to write about such an appallingly sad personal tragedy, but I feel that it highlights major issues that exist in twenty-first century Ireland, and it caused me to ask some questions: What does the law in Ireland state in regards to the rights of the unborn vs. the rights of the mother? What exactly is the teaching of the Catholic church on this matter? What is the medical protocol with regards to these? While researching the answers to these questions I have become increasingly angered, sickened and frustrated that in twenty-first century Ireland, millions of women are at the mercy of muddled theology, unconstitutional legal frameworks, illegal inaction and frankly misogynistic attitudes.

I’ll start with Irish law. In 1983 a case came before the Supreme Court involving a fourteen year old girl (X), pregnant having been raped by her neighbour, who became so depressed that she developed suicidal tendencies knowing that she would have no choice but to take the pregnancy to term as abortion was illegal. She confided these thoughts to her mother, who, taking her young daughter’s threats of suicide seriously, traveled with her to England to procure a termination. The Irish Attorney General got wind of this as the mother very sensibly asked the Garda Síochána if DNA evidence taken from the fetus would be admissible evidence in court should the rape case come to trial. The AG sought an injunction against her having the operation using Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

X appealed to the Supreme Court who found that Article 40.3.3. of the constitution did in fact allow X to obtain an abortion seeing as there was a “real and substantive” risk to her life (they obviously paid attention to the bit that reads “equal right to life of the mother“). However, after the judgement but before the abortion could be carried out, X miscarried.

Despite this judgement, and two further amendments which state that it is legal for women to travel overseas to procure terminations and for literature advertising overseas abortion services which were ratified via referendum in 1992, the European Court of Human Rights judged that Ireland had failed to give proper legislative effect to these in December 2010. Further to this, it ruled that the legal framework surrounding terminations for medical or “therapeutic” purposes was “significantly chilling”, and those seeking information on their rights had no clarity or information. As I write, the Irish government and legislature are waiting on a report which reviews the European Judgement before they further clarify women’s rights in Ireland, and make their constitutional rights explicit in the legal framework.

How is it women in Ireland, such as Savita found themselves unable to access the rights which are constitutionally laid out for them, with truly tragic consequences? Why have successive Irish governments failed to provide further clarity on this issue?

The answer lies mainly with Ireland’s staunchly Catholic identity. In the 2011 census eighty-four per cent ticked the “Roman Catholic” box. Now we all know that the Catholic Church is staunchly ‘pro-life’. What is often less clear is that it is staunchly ‘pro-life’ so long as that life is not that of the woman who is pregnant. The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Life, Abortion and Euthanasia Article 5 teaches that:

Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.

“…directly destroy an innocent human being”. Got that folks? The medical staff at University Hospital Galway were quite correct from a theological point of view when they refused to in any way directly destroy the life of the (already dying) fetus. They were also theologically on message when they indirectly, through this inaction, contributed to the suffering and eventual death of Savita Halappanavar.

Catholic theological law is quite explicit that direct abortion, under any circumstances is a grave moral sin, equal to murder. Teaching is clear that this is the case whether the pregnancy be due to to consensual sex, rape, or incest. However the teachings are mysteriously vague when it comes to cases like the above, where a woman’s life is in danger as a result of the pregnancy. Here we reach very murky water. The intention can never be to take a life: only to save a life. Preferably the intention must be to save both lives. If one life happens to end as an indirect consequence of this action, then no sin has been committed.

There we are: The Catholic Church effectively condones allowing the death of a pregnant woman if the only way to save her life is to terminate the existence of a fetus. This is a strong statement, but I believe it is a true one.

So what hope then do the Irish medical community have of providing adequate maternal health care when they are governed by an unclarified legal framework which is taking direction from a religious organisation who seem to specify, through their own lack of theological clarity, that it is preferable to allow a mother’s death through inaction than to proactively abort or expedite an unviable pregnancy to save her life?

In interviews with the Irish Times today, two obstetricians gave differing statements. While both claimed that the medical focus should be on maintaining the health of the mother, one stated that “interventions” took place in his hospital when the life of the mother was in danger, but denied these were therapeutic abortions. The other said that in cases where the pregnancy would not achieve viability, he would “expedite delivery”. He added that ““[d]ecisions like this are usually clinically led. It’s easier in voluntary hospitals with clear clinical leadership. Where governance is more complex and bureaucratic it can be harder to get decisions.”. Note that neither of these clinicians was willing to describe any medical procedures they had performed as “abortions”. Here we get to the crux of the matter: Ireland’s legal framework is so unclear that medical leadership teams are completely at sea as to which life-saving procedures are legal and which are illegal.

One can only assume that the Irish government is frightened of clarifying it’s position on therapeutic terminations due to the perceived risk of alienating the vast majority of the electorate, but perhaps also because of fear for their eternal souls. However, by their continued inaction, they not only risk more tragic and preventable deaths like that of Savita Halappanavar, but also serious trouble from the European Union, on whom they are financially reliant. Unfortunately, I would imagine that it would be financial penalties rather than women’s lives which push the Irish government into action.


Georgia Butler is an atypical Essex girl who’s lived on and off in London for the last six years. Currently juggling a Masters in Religion and Gender with working for a soulless corporation, she loves tattoos, music involving loud noises and incoherent screaming, and expressing embittered cynicism.

One comment

  • Steve Butler
    November 15, 2012 - 18:13 | Permalink

    Well done Georgia, good article. I’m proud of you.

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