Ireland’s Historic Abortion Shift and the Tragedy That Shadowed It

The death of Savita Halappanavar intensified Ireland’s abortion debate. Her husband shares her story with TIME

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Demonstrators hold placards and candles in memory of Savita Halappanavar during a march in Dublin on Nov. 17, 2012, supporting legislative change on abortion

Opening the doors to what would be the first legal abortions in Ireland, the Irish government announced Tuesday it will introduce laws and regulations that will clarify existing laws about under what circumstances doctors in the predominantly Catholic country can perform abortions for women whose lives are at risk.

“I know that most people have personal views on this matter,” said Ireland’s Minister of Health, James Reilly, in a statement. “However, the government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened. For that purpose, we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman’s life. We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care, while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child.”

(MORE: After Pregnant Woman’s Death, Protesters Rally Against Irish Abortion Law)

The announcement follows the recent delivery to the Irish Parliament of a report by a panel of experts that recommended the government legislate the issue in order to clarify what the current laws actually do and do not permit. The fiercely contested debate in Ireland over abortion has intensified since the death on Oct. 28 of a 31-year-old Indian woman who was allegedly refused an abortion in a hospital after she had been told she would miscarry.

The case of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who had lived in Ireland for four years, caused outrage among supporters of the right of women to obtain abortions in Ireland, one of the only European countries to have what is effectively a total ban on the procedure. In an interview with TIME before Tuesday’s announcement, Savita’s husband Praveen said he didn’t want to sue or punish anyone — he simply wanted to ensure that no other woman in Ireland would go through the trauma his wife and her family have endured. Two investigations into Savita’s death are ongoing. Her husband has remained in Ireland and continues to press his case for a public inquiry into his wife’s death, which he believes would be a more thorough vehicle for finding out the details.

(MORE: Ireland Abortion Scandal: Death of a Pregnant Woman Prompts Soul-Searching)


Ever since she first arrived in Galway, Ireland, Savita Halappanavar had thrown herself into organizing baby showers for each of her new friends as they, one by one, became pregnant. Now it was her turn. “She had huge expectations,” says Savita’s husband Praveen. “She had told her friends how she wanted her baby shower to be, to bring gifts that were pink in color. She was very confident it would be a girl. She’d even thought about the name, Prasa — a combination of Praveen and Savita.”

The couple had met in India in 2008 through a mutual friend in what Praveen describes both as a love match and an arranged marriage. “We used to talk over the phone, and I made frequent trips back home to visit Savita. We knew we couldn’t stay apart,” says Praveen, who had moved to Ireland for work two years earlier. When Savita joined him in Ireland after their wedding she dedicated herself to passing the exams that would allow her to practice dentistry in Ireland. She missed her family terribly, particularly her father. “She was the youngest in the family and the dearest,” says Praveen. “She took care of her father when he was sick in hospital and they became very close.”

The young couple fell in love with Ireland. They were determined to travel all around the country. “We were very adventurous,” says Praveen. “We went exploring almost every weekend, from the Cliffs of Moher to the Aran Islands. We visited every tourist attraction.”

Savita loved dancing and quickly introduced her passion to the local community, teaching Bollywood dancing, even to her hesitant husband. “I was so shy and had never been on stage before, but Savita gave me confidence,” he says. “At that time, I was ready to do anything for her. We were deeply in love and were on top of the world.”

(MORE: Ireland’s Abortion Debate Heats Up)

When Praveen told his parents back home in the state of Karnataka, India, that he and Savita were expecting their first child, his family was overjoyed. On Oct. 20, the couple shared the news with their friends at a small gathering in their Galway home, attended by Savita’s parents, who were visiting for a few months. The baby was due in March 2013.

That night, Savita had trouble sleeping. The following morning she complained of severe back pain, and so Praveen took her to the hospital. He says that after an examination, the midwife assured them they had nothing to worry about; the baby was safe and they should go home. A few hours later, they were back in the emergency room. Praveen saw that his wife was still distressed: “She was in a very bad condition,” he recalls. “I can still remember it now, it’s still not gone.”

While he consoled his wife, she turned to him and began to apologize. “She even said sorry to me, I don’t know why she said it.” The doctor explained that Savita had cervical dilation and that fluid had begun to leak from her womb, says Praveen. The young couple asked if there was any way the womb could be closed up but the medical staff explained there was nothing to be done, Praveen says. Savita was going to miscarry her child.

Once the couple realized the fetus would not survive, they asked for a termination to end Savita’s suffering, Praveen says. “Immediately, she said that she couldn’t take it and that she needed a termination,” recalls Praveen. “She wanted to go home.” They knew that abortion was illegal under most circumstances in Ireland but felt that their situation was different — they had planned the pregnancy and did not want their child to die.

According to Praveen, the medical staff said the miscarriage would take a couple of hours and that they should expect to be home by the end of the day. Three days later, after hours of excruciating pain, vomiting and nausea, Savita miscarried, Praveen says. A nurse told Savita that the fetus was female, Praveen says.

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Two inquiries into the death of Savita Halappanavar — one by Ireland’s national health service, the Health Service Executive, and the other by the patients’-rights watchdog Health Information and Quality Authority — were set up in late November to help clarify how the medical staff looking after Savita reached their decisions. The hospital has declined to comment on the case until both inquiries have concluded. Neither the Health Service Executive nor the Health Information and Quality Authority inquiry has said when they will complete their investigations.

The doctors treating Savita were operating in a legal fog that has existed in the Republic of Ireland since the 1992 case of a 14-year-old who became pregnant by rape. Savita’s husband Praveen says that his wife’s consultant, who had been with her since the start of her pregnancy, explained that under Irish law, doctors could not touch the fetus until its heart stopped beating. (The consultant, like all hospital staff, has made no comment on the case.) Praveen says there were two junior doctors present, as well as a family friend, when the consultant allegedly reminded the couple that “unfortunately, it is a Catholic country, and when the fetus is still alive, you’re not able to terminate it.”

“Then she said sorry and walked away,” he says.

By the time the fetus died, Savita’s health was seriously deteriorating. “Immediately, things started getting worse,” says Praveen. His wife had contracted septicemia and E.coli ESBL, a strain of bacteria that resists penicillin. “Her body had started swelling and her tummy was big. When I held her hand, she was rock solid.”

Three nights later, says Praveen, a nurse led him to the ICU, asking: “Are you brave enough to be beside Savita during her last few minutes?” He remembers pleading to the doctors to save his wife. “If not for me, I thought she would fight it and come back at least for her father,” he says. Savita died early on the morning of Oct. 28.

(MORE: After Pregnant Woman’s Death, Protesters Rally Against Irish Abortion Law)

Praveen took his wife’s body to Belgaum in India for burial, in a funeral ceremony that attracted nearly a thousand friends and family. Savita’s family pressed him for answers. “There are six to seven doctors in the family — her uncle, her brother, they’re all doctors — and they couldn’t believe it. They said it was a matter of a half-an-hour job. They couldn’t believe it had happened in the 21st century in a country like Ireland.” Praveen had no answers so he turned to the Irish media; the story caused an uproar in Ireland that continues to this day.

Praveen believes that had his wife been in India, where the pregnancy could have been terminated, she would be alive today, planning her next pregnancy.

Praveen remains far from home in a country whose laws he believes contributed to the death of the woman he loved. But he does not feel alone. “I didn’t know where I would get that strength from,” he says, referring to his campaign for a public inquiry and his speaking in public about his wife’s death, “but it’s happening because I’m getting a sense from Savita.”

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