Investigations begin into death of woman who was refused an abortion

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 16 November 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7824
  1. Muiris Houston
  1. 1Galway

The death of a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant is the subject of two investigations at University Hospital Galway in the Republic of Ireland.

Savita Halappanavar’s husband, Praveen, said that she asked several times for her pregnancy to be terminated because she was in pain and was miscarrying. This was refused, he said, because the fetal heartbeat was still present and the couple was told that “this is a Catholic country.”

Halappanavar, who was 31 and a dentist who settled in Ireland in 2008, was subsequently taken to theatre, where a surgical evacuation of her uterus was carried out. However, her condition continued to deteriorate, and she died from septicaemia on 28 October, some three days after being admitted to hospital.

A spokesman for University Hospital Galway confirmed that the Health Service Executive had begun an investigation and that the hospital had also instigated an internal investigation. He said that the hospital extended its sympathy to the family and friends of Halappanavar but could not discuss the details of any individual case.

The incident has been reported globally by traditional and social media. Abortion remains illegal in the Republic of Ireland. However, in 1992 the case of a 14 year girl who became suicidal after discovering that she was pregnant following a rape highlighted the risk of suicide and access to abortion. An injunction initially prohibited the girl from travelling to England for an abortion, but she won the right to termination after an appeal. Commenting on the case, the then chief justice stated that “if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy, such termination is permissible.”

In the 20 years since, successive governments have failed to bring forward legislation to give effect to the ruling. Two years ago the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland had failed to provide for abortion in circumstances where the mother’s life was at risk.

Since Halappanavar’s case was made public by the Irish Times demonstrations have taken place in Dublin, Cork, and other Irish cities to protest at the lack of abortion legislation.

The deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, said that there was a need to bring “legal clarity” to the abortion issue. “We need to ensure that in this country we do not have a doubt which arises in a hospital in a set of circumstances which puts a mother’s life at risk,” he said. Gilmore told the Dáil (parliament) on 15 November that there was also a need for clarity for medical professionals who had to make a judgment in “those matters” in hospitals.

Gilmore confirmed that the health minister, James Reilly, had just received a report from an expert group on abortion that had been commissioned some time ago. He said that the report would be carefully considered by the government and would inform the drafting of abortion legislation to be put before the Dáil.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7824