Debate over Irish abortion law has been heated since news broke of Savita Halappanavar, a 17-week pregnant woman who died in a Galway hospital on Oct. 28.
Halappanavar's autopsy has revealed that she died of blood poisoning and E. coli ESBL, an antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacterium.
“Instead of jumping to the conclusions that Halappanavar needed an abortion and that Ireland needs to legalize the killing of the youngest of its kind, the reasonable approach would be to get to the bottom of what Halappanavar’s condition was and examine how it was, or was not, responded to,” wrote Stephanie Gray, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform Nov. 20.
E. coli ESBL has recently spread throughout the U.K., causing urinary tract infections which can develop into blood poisoning.
“The presence of E. coli ESBL is particularly problematic if Halappanavar was given antibiotics to fight an infection that was resistant to those very antibiotics,” Gray said.
Both the Irish health department and University Hospital Galway are making independent inquiries into the circumstances of Halappanavar's death.
On Oct. 20, she went to the hospital suffering severe back pain and there found she was miscarrying. She then requested an abortion, but was told medical staff would not make such a move as long as her daughter had a heartbeat.
Prasa, the child, died four days later, and after another three days Savita succumbed to blood poisoning and E. coli ESBL.
“We have yet to hear from the hospital and the medical professionals involved as to what precisely happened, but with this report of her dying from E. coli ESBL one wonders how killing Halappanavar’s baby Prasa would have killed the E. coli,” Gray noted.
Irish pro-life groups Life Institute and Youth Defence announced Nov. 16 that abortion campaigners in the country had been given prior knowledge of Halappanavar, and planned to use her death to lobby for abortion legalization.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin weighed in on Sunday by pointing out that pregnant women in Ireland can expect some of the best healthcare worldwide for themselves and their children.
“The facts show us we have in fact one of the lowest levels of maternal mortality in the world, which means that whatever practices we have are producing the results that we should respect,” he told The Irish Times Nov. 18 outside a parish in Whitehall, a Dublin suburb.
“When I look at the standards of maternal care that exist in this country...I would hope that we will be able to maintain that.”
The Republic of Ireland is one of the safest countries in the world for pregnant mothers. Only three of every 100,000 women die in childbirth in the country. The average number in Europe and North America is 14 per 100,000.
Before Nov. 14, Halappanavar's husband Praveen, an engineer, told the BBC he had “no doubt about it” that Savita would still be alive had she been allowed an abortion.
On Nov. 20, The Irish Times reported that Praveen said, “I haven't a clue who is at fault. I just want to know the truth,” noting that the care Savita received in the intensive care unit was very good.
In response to the situation, the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference stated Nov. 19, “we believe in upholding the equal and inalienable right to life of a mother and her unborn child,” and that “where a seriously ill pregnant woman needs medical treatment which may put the life of her baby at risk, such treatments are ethically permissible provided every effort has been made to save the life of both the mother and her baby.”
Abortion in Ireland is governed by an 1861 law which bans the procedure. The 1983 constitution recognizes unborn childrens' right to life, “with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.”
In 1992, the country's Supreme Court ruled that abortion was lawful if there was a substantial risk to the life of the mother as a result of her pregnancy.
Yet in the 20 years since the ruling, lawmakers have refrained from revising Irish abortion law, leaving a complicated legal process for women who believe they need an abortion. In April, the lower house of the Irish parliament rejected a bill that would have legalized the procedure.
Stephanie Gray reiterated that “jumping to the conclusion that abortion should be legalized in Ireland overlooks” Halappanavar's “underlying medical condition and makes the dangerous assumption that we need to kill one person to save another.”
Following the death of a pregnant women in Ireland who was denied an abortion, pro-life voices are advising careful examination of the circumstances rather than abortion advocacy.