Woman’s death poses tough abortion questions for India and Ireland

November 17, 2012

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

The death of a 31-year-old Indian woman in Ireland after doctors refused to give her an abortion has sparked protests in her home country of India as well as in Ireland.

Activists in Ireland said that ending Savita Halappanavar’s pregnancy could have saved her life. She died of septicaemia following a miscarriage 17 weeks into her pregnancy. Her family believes that the delay in removing the foetus contributed to the blood poisoning.

Ireland, whose population is 84 percent Roman Catholic, has some of the world’s most restrictive laws on abortion, and critics say that doctors placed faith, as embodied in those laws, above her well being when they decided not to abort Halappanavar’s foetus — despite her repeated requests.

“She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby,” her husband told reporters. “The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’, but they said there was nothing they could do.”

The death of Halappanavar, who was a dentist living and working in Galway in Ireland after she moved from Karnataka, shows that lack of clear abortion laws can put a woman at the mercy of the morals of medical practitioners, who themselves end up deciding whether it is preferable for an unborn child to lose its life, or for the mother to also do so.

Many people around the world welcome abortion laws that give women the right to the procedure, and people in India have protested just this lack of choice that they see in Ireland.

But the right to choose in India, granted by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971, can be put to sinister use. In the world’s second-most populous country, some people have aborted children on learning that they would be girls.

With the introduction of pre-natal sex detection, parents in large parts of the country have opted for sex-selective abortions because they consider girls a liability. Even modern, educated couples prefer boys, whom they see as a source of financial security once the parents age.

In wealthy states such as Punjab, there are only 851 girls for every 1,000 boys in the zero to six age group in urban areas.

Widespread sex-selective abortion has resulted in “wife-sharing,” in which decades of aborting female foetuses has led to such a drastic decline in female population that one woman is sexually “shared” by all the men in a family. Even though such exploitation of women is illegal in India, it has become acceptable in many parts of Haryana and Punjab.

Several Indian politicians as well as India’s ambassador to Ireland have expressed outrage over the death of Halappanavar, both because she was an Indian and that she was made a victim of controversial laws and religious beliefs.

Brinda Karat, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has called it a “culpable crime”  and other local politicians have demanded a swift and transparent probe into the case.

While protests both in India and abroad have forced the Irish government to reconsider its policy on abortion, it has become clear that neither the right to an abortion or a law making it hard or forbidding it will give women in many countries control over their bodies and their lives.

(Andanappa Yalagi, father of Savita Halappanavar holds her portrait as he poses for a picture at their house in Belgaum in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Nov. 16, 2012. Reuters photo: Danish Siddiqui)


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The irish Government has demanded a full inquiry into the death of the poor woman and her child. There will be three separate inquires. There will be results early next week. I do not know of any group that would suggest that we cannot depend on the impartiality of there findings. the fact is that successif Governments have tried without success to force abortion on our free independent nation and have failed. Why not wait to see what they find out about the case and then make a gugement about ireland.

Posted by cpor | Report as abusive

As Indians, we are always in a hurry to sit in judgement, where Indians are involved. Going by press reports,it appears that the attending physicians have abided by Irish laws. Moreover, the Government Inquiry will reveal whether there has been any overt negligence in providing treatment to the deceased.
Let us wait a few days for this to happen!
On a different note, the lady must have been aware of the implications of living and working in a country with strict abortion laws and had exercised a conscious decision to live and work in Ireland.
While her passing away was tragic, all we can offer at the moment is our condolences and pray for her, “May her soul rest in peace!”

Posted by Ugottabesick | Report as abusive

I’ve been wondering the same thing about awareness of the law when you go to certain places. Having said that, I don’t think that any woman ever thinks before becoming pregnant, “Here’s what I’ll do if I go toxic and my child dies in utero, and by the way, what are the local, state or national laws that I’ll have to read before that happens?” Also, in this case, I think that the laws may say all sorts of things, but in my experience covering politics as a journalist, I have discovered that obeying the law often means interpreting it – just like a Supreme Court judge would, only without the background in jurisprudence. What we don’t know yet is whether the doctors could have made a case for aborting, and then decided not to, or whether it was very clear that you DO NOT do this under any circumstance.
Thanks for reading – I would say that it’s good to chat with you as always, but we’ve only chatted twice that I recall.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

I am a college professor and a mother. Several years ago I, too, suffered a difficult and potentially life-threatening miscarriage in which I began bleeding excessively. I am thankful for the medical care that helped me recover, and I am truly sorry that this terrible tragedy has happened to this woman and her husband. However, I remain unconvinced that Dr. Halappanavar’s death from septicemia resulted from her inability to receive an abortion. Although media stories have declared the family’s view, I have heard no panel of medical experts allege such a view. See the following: http://youtu.be/cVGvUF217us

Posted by laurafbrown | Report as abusive

Hi, My sister also had this problem. She went to doctor in Tamil Nadu. Now their family with a lovely baby boy leading a joyful life. Her experience giving below.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hgSGw3A VaY

Posted by Remya | Report as abusive