Twisting the Abortion Debate in Ireland

by Peter Smith

The media presentation of a tragedy in Ireland is the hijacking of two lives and the distortion of a debate.

Savita Halappanavar was an Indian woman who came to the Republic of Ireland in 2008 with her husband Praveen. Earlier this year, they conceived a child, the couple’s first. One Saturday night at the end of October, Savita was admitted to hospital with back pain. She thought she was miscarrying her baby as the pain continued and increased. The doctors agreed she was miscarrying her 17-week old child, although a foetal heartbeat was registered. According to Praveen, Savita asked for a termination of the child at this point. She was refused. Praveen says that the hospital staff rejected her request because Ireland is a ‘Catholic country’ and abortion is ‘banned’. After three days, the baby – and then Savita –  died.

Praveen – a deeply grieving man who has lost his wife and child – is apparently adamant that, had Savita had a termination as requested, she would still be alive: “Of course, no doubt about it”, he is quoted as saying. After the deaths, a post-mortem found that Savita had died of the blood infection septicaemia, causing shock and organ failure.

Two strands of publicity have flowed from these events. The first strand exists almost solely on my facebook feed (and in some sensible quarters of the media). There, level-headed people have pointed out that there were concurrent causes of death operating, including septic shock, and that these facts are scientifically independent of the actions that the hospital staff took. In other words, let the coroner investigate. Questions for the coroner will include when the sepsis was recognised, how it was treated, and at one point did the continuation of the pregnancy represent a real risk to the life of the mother. Ireland already has special investigations into mother-and-baby deaths during pregnancy. Let any accusations in criminal law (gross negligence manslaughter, for instance) and/or clinical negligence lawsuits follow thereafter.

The second strand of publicity is not just on my facebook feed: it is the media in Britain and Ireland, and beyond. Google the case and you will be bombarded by articles that effectively blame the deaths on the Catholic moral teaching, as reflected in Irish law. As the Catholic Voices blog summarised some of the most egregious examples:

 The Times of India  has accused Ireland of “murdering” her while Richard Dawkins, ever the opportunist, tweeted that “Irish Catholic bigotry kills woman.” This narrative has been taken up by Catholics such as Judith Woods in the Telegraph, who hangs her head in shame that a life has been sacrificed on the altar of dogma.

Attached to the charges of ‘bigotry’ are calls for the liberalisation of abortion in Ireland. In fact, it is fair to note that more concern has been given to this set of arguments than to the poor Halapanavars.

Par for the course, the liberal media is led by the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian quotes Savita’s mother as saying, “How many more cases will there be? The rules should be changed as per the requirement of Hindus. We are Hindus, not Christians”. Astonishingly, only towards the end of this article is an obstetrician’s view actually noted. Dr Gerry Whyte, at Trinity College, Dublin, noted that a termination of a miscarrying baby would have been legal within Irish law if deemed absolutely necessary to save the life of a mother. He concluded, “Now clearly the case raises issues that I couldn’t comment on about medical judgments, about whether or not termination of the pregnancy would have saved her life or not”. Elsewhere, another doctor noted, “Infection can come out of nowhere and kill you very quickly”.

In a sensible world, it is here that the second thread of publicity would collapse back into the first. But no. The pro-choice lobby are hijacking these deaths to campaign for liberalisation of abortion. The aply-named Emer O’Toole felt it necessary to be an instrument of this lobby in ‘apologising’ to Praveen for the deaths: “To her family, I want to say: I am ashamed, I am culpable, and I am very sorry”. No, Ms O’Toole, you are not. The bacteria which caused organ failure is responsible; it may be case that the doctors who assessed Savita’s medical condition were responsible. You are not, the Irish people are not, and their ban on unnecessary abortion is not.

Goretti Horgan – an Northern Irishwoman apparently named after St Maria Goretti, an 11 year old Italian girl who was murdered by her attempted rapist after she refused to submit to him – opined in the Guardian (where else?) that Savita’s death has ‘transformed’ Ireland’s debate on abortion: “It was one of those ‘I told you so’ moments you hope never to have”, she writes. Savita’s death – far from being an isolated case in one of the countries safest for maternal health in the world – is, in Horgan’s eyes, an example of an ‘unclear’ law whose restrictions contributed to the tragedy.

No, they aren’t. The lack of clarity is portrayed by Horgan’s stablemate, Jill Filipovic, in the context of attaching the Republicans for their ‘no abortion’ platform. At the end of her article she concluded that ‘Just two months ago, a consortium of Irish doctors got together to declare abortion medically unnecessary. They claimed that abortion is never needed to save a pregnant woman’s life, and stated: “We confirm that the prohibition of abortion does not effect, in any way, the availability of optimal care to pregnant women” ’. Follow the link she embeds for this claim, and you find out what the Dublin Declaration actually says:

Irish Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have previously pointed out that treatment for conditions such as ectopic pregnancy are not considered abortion by doctors, yet misinformation in regard to this abounds in public debate. The Symposium clarifies that direct abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a woman, and that’s good news for mothers and their babies.

In other words, indirectly removing ectopic or miscarried pregnancies is completely within the purview of medical action contemplated and accepted by these prolife doctors.

The pro-choice industry is falling over itself to proclaim with righteous indignation that the pro-life restrictions on abortion caused Savita’s death. Far from proposing a reduction in the standard for terminations in Eire to a mere ‘risk’ rather than a ‘substantial’ or ‘life-endangering’ one, they will seek a wholesale liberalisation. Irish politicians must resist this clamour and investigate this case thoroughly.


Peter Smith is a lawyer in London. He has previously worked for a Conservative Member of Parliament, and has written for and The Commentator.


  1. Howard Nadolny says:

    In a normal pregnancy, the fertilized egg enters the uterus and settles into the uterine lining where it has plenty of room to divide and grow. About 1% of pregnancies are in an ectopic location with implantation not occurring inside of the womb, and of these 98% occur in the Fallopian tubes. ,:,`

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  3. An abortion is a procedure to end a pregnancy. It uses medicine or surgery to remove the embryo or fetus and placenta from the uterus. The procedure is done by a licensed health care professional. The decision to end a pregnancy is very personal. If you are thinking of having an abortion, most healthcare providers advise counseling.”,:

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