Comment & Opinion

You will find the most recent and up-to-date comments, articles and opinions of issues that Right To Life touch upon here:

Amnesty’s Travesty of the Savita Tragedy (‘Amnesty’s Travesty Of Human Rights’, Part IV)

by Peter D. Williams

We saw yesterday that Amnesty International (AI), following the example of the international abortion lobby, has used false arguments about women’s health to justify their campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion worldwide. Specifically, they abused the ‘Beatriz’ case in El Salvador to illustrate the supposed need for legalised abortion in order to save women’s life and health. As fallacious as this was, it is mirrored in an even higher profile case that has already been raised as a great cause célèbre for removing protections for unborn children in Ireland.

On the 21st of October 2012, an Indian dentist who was working in Ireland, Dr. Savita Halappanavar, presented at Galway University complaining of back pain. She was advised physiotherapy and sent home, but returned a few hours later complaining of a “dragging sensation” in her body. The next day, her waters broke. Given a scan, which heartbreakingly showed a fetal heartbeat, it was prognosed that she would inevitably miscarry, and she was informed of this. Warned of a risk of infection, she was given antibiotics.

On the 23rd, Dr. Halappanavar asked her consultant, Dr. Katherine Astbury, for a ‘termination of pregnancy’. That is to say, she wanted her baby (whom she knew had a poor prognosis) to be removed from her, and so the miscarriage that would have been causing her so much distress, to be brought to a quick conclusion. Dr. Astbury allegedly replied to her that “in this country it is not legal to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of poor prognosis for a foetus”, and that since a fetal heartbeat was present and her life not at risk, it was not legally possible to carry out a termination. Dr. Halappanavar was upset by this, but allegedly also told by the Midwife Manager that a termination could not be carried out because Ireland is “a Catholic country”.

Over the next five days, the worst happened. On the 25th, she started to shake with cold, went into toxic shock, and died at 1:09am on the 28th.

Her death became a major news story because her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, who had been with her at the hospital, reported her denied request for a termination and the alleged reasons given for such a denial. Abortion lobbyists seized the opportunity to make a connection between this refusal and her death, asserting the one caused the other, and that if only abortion were legal and accepted, Dr. Halappanavar would still be alive.

Partly in response to the outrage caused by media reporting of the case, a year later the Irish Oireachtas (Parliament) passed the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013’, which codified into law the legality of abortion where pregnancy is said to endanger a woman’s life, including through risk of suicide.

Despite all this, an appreciation of the evidence (from the subsequent inquest, panel findings, and report) shows the death of Savita Halappanavar was in no way due to her being refused abortion.

As we noted on the last post, it is debated amongst bioethicists whether ‘terminating pregnancy’ by removing a baby from the womb prior to viability is the same ethical situation as abortion, but crucially such a procedure is allowed by the Irish system in emergency situations. As section 21.2 of the Irish Medical Council’s Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners states:

“During pregnancy, rare complications can arise where a therapeutic intervention is required which may result in there being little or no hope of the baby surviving. In these exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother, while making every effort to preserve the life of the baby”.

In any case, Savita was not apparently asking for this because she thought it would save her life. Rather, she wanted to expedite the tragedy of her miscarriage. Similarly, in denying this, the staff were not putting a moral and legal injunction above saving her life, but simply following normal medical protocol, by which an abortion would have been seen as an unnecessary surgical procedure, especially since it was believed that her child had a small but significant chance of survival, and such an intervention would have carried its own risks.

What the evidence actually shows is that Savita died from a progressively worsening sepsis, which came from E.coli bacterial infection that entered her bloodstream from her urinary tract, and was antibiotic resistant. Whilst it is not clear that she could have survived this, the inquest ruled that ‘medical misadventure’ (failure to look at blood tests, and to recognise, monitor, and manage her infection/sepsis) took place. In no way has unavailability of abortion been identified as the cause of her death. Indeed, as Dr. Hema Divakar (President of the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of Dr. Halappanavar’s native India) stated regarding her assessment of the situation:

“Delay or refusal to terminate the pregnancy does not in itself seem to be the cause of death. Even if the law permitted it, it is not as if her life would have been saved because of termination… Severe septicaemia with disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), a life-threatening bleeding disorder which is a complication of sepsis, major organ damage and loss of the mother’s blood due to severe infection, is the cause of death in Savita’s case. This is what seems to have happened and this is a sequence which cannot be reversed just by terminating the pregnancy”.

The bottom line is that the reason why Savita Halappanavar died was because she was given insufficient care by the medical professionals who were looking after her. At no point would an abortion have saved her life. Yet the abortion lobby chose, combining ignorance with cynical opportunism, to abuse her story to their own inhuman ends. This effort continues even now, after the full evidence has been made public.

One of the more disgraceful tactics of the abortion lobby around the world is to take difficult or even tragic cases of women who suffer difficulties in pregnancy, and exploit them to their own ideological ends. Amnesty International did not start this particular example, but it is one that their supporters are willing to lazily (if not dishonestly) repeat in order to achieve their goals. It is a falsehood that needs to be firmly and consistently corrected.


This post is part of the ‘Amnesty’s Travesty of Human Rights’ series, and is cross-posted on the Blog of the Life website as part of our joint #AmnestyTravesty campaign. Please go to and sign the petition!