A protester holds a picture of Savita Halappanavar outside University Hospital Galway in Galway, Ireland November 15, 2012. Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
This week, the first American study ever to look at what happens to women when they’re denied abortions was released. It’s a fascinating, but not all that surprising, read. The research shows women who seek out abortions and are unable to obtain them fare significantly worse over time than women who are able to procure the procedure. Women who are denied abortions are more likely to end up on welfare, more likely to stay in abusive relationships, and more likely to be emotionally distressed over their pregnancy outcome.
Women’s lives suffer when they are forced to carry pregnancies. I thought I was angry when I read this research. But then I heard about Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, whose tragic story reminds us of the worst thing that can happen when women are denied abortions.
The 31-year-old Indian dentist, who was seventeen weeks pregnant, went to the hospital with severe back pain. Within hours of being admitted, doctors told her she was miscarrying. The law in Ireland—which only allows for abortion if a woman’s life is in danger—prevented Savita from being able to end her pregnancy and her excruciating pain because there was still a fetal heartbeat present.
As Savita’s condition worsened over the course of three days, she and her husband begged doctors to end the doomed pregnancy. They refused, saying “this is Catholic country.”
Savita countered, “I am neither Irish nor Catholic.” Still, she was denied. That night she vomited repeatedly and collapsed in a restroom.
The following day, the fetus’s heartbeat finally stopped and it was removed by the doctors. But it was too late. Savita was transferred to the ICU where she died of septic shock.
Savita died in terrible pain, over the course of several days, begging for a medical procedure that would save her life. She was killed—murdered by a law that places women’s humanity beneath that of a fetus.
American women would do well not to dismiss this as a tragedy that could only happen in another country. This is what happens when you legislate something as personal and complicated as pregnancy. How do doctors decide when a woman is close enough to dying to give her an abortion? Or to what degree does a woman’s health need to be at risk?