The Savita Halappanavar case: Judicial inquiry told abortion refusal was ‘Catholic thing’
An Irish inquest into the death of a pregnant Indian woman who was allegedly denied a termination heard from a witness Tuesday who said an abortion was refused due to a Roman Catholic ethos.
Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist originally from India, died in a hospital in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, last October after suffering a miscarriage.
She was 17 weeks pregnant and miscarrying when she went to Galway University Hospital on October 21, complaining of backache.
During evidence on the opening day Monday, her husband Praveen said his wife, a Hindu, repeatedly requested that doctors terminate the pregnancy when it was clear the pregnancy was not viable but they refused because there was still a foetal heartbeat.
In evidence Tuesday, family friend Mrudala Vasepalli recalled being present when Savita asked if anything could be done to save her baby, and when told there was not, requested if anything could speed up the inevitable.
“We don’t do that here, dear. It’s a Catholic thing,” Vasepalli recalls being told by the midwife.
Ann Maria Burke, midwife manager at St Monica’s Ward, later confirmed she had made the comment but stressed that she did not mean it in a hurtful way.
She said the phrase had “come out the wrong way and I’m sorry that I said it.”
The coroner Ciaran McLoughlin said the remark had been picked up around the world but stated Irish public hospitals did not operate under religious dogma of any persuasion.
Vasepalli earlier described her friend as being in great emotional distress when she discovered her baby would not survive.
“She was crying every time. She said: ‘Either way it hurts me. If the heartbeat is there, it hurts me. If it stops, it hurts me. What kind of mother am I, waiting for my baby to die’,” she told the packed courtroom.
The medics who treated Savita gave evidence Tuesday, with questioning focusing on whether due care was given to the risk of infection when it became clear Savita was miscarrying.
The court heard blood tests taken the night she was admitted that showed raised white blood cells — an indication of infection — were not acted on until three days later.
An experienced midwife, who cared for Savita in the days before her death, said she was frightened by the rate of deterioration in her condition.
“I have never seen a woman suffering a miscarriage get so sick so quickly and I have been on that ward seven years,” nurse Miriam Dunleavy told the court.
The consultant doctor whom Praveen Halappanavar said Monday refused a termination due to a Catholic ethos in Ireland also read her statement, although cross examination was adjourned until Wednesday.
Dr Katherine Astbury said she had discussed termination with Savita after she requested medicine to expedite the process after she was told the outlook on the pregnancy was poor.
Astbury told the court she had explained to Savita that the legal position in Ireland did not permit her to carry out a termination at that time.
Her legal team have indicated she will strenuously deny making any reference to Catholicism in her dealings with the couple.
Abortion is illegal in Ireland unless there is a substantial risk to the life of the mother, with Astbury stating she discussed this option with Savita when her condition had worsened.
“I also informed Mrs Halappanavar that if she did not continue to improve we might have no option but to consider termination drugs.”
Savita Halappanavar died on October 28 from complications as a result of septicaemia.
Praveen Halappanavar said the inquest was his last chance to discover the truth about how and why his wife was treated.
Nearly 70 statements from hospital staff, police and other sources have been gathered for the inquest but not all of their authors will appear as witnesses.
The case has once again focused attention on the Irish Republic’s strict abortion laws.
Dublin has vowed to introduce legislation, expected in July, to make the rules surrounding abortion easier for doctors and patients to follow.