Death of woman denied abortion blamed on staff

Inquest faults Irish hospital

Savita Halappanavar died of blood poisoning after a lengthy miscarriage in Galway.
Savita Halappanavar died of blood poisoning after a lengthy miscarriage in Galway.

DUBLIN — A miscarrying Indian woman who died from blood poisoning in an Irish hospital after being denied an abortion perished because staff bungled her diagnosis and didn’t give her prompt treatment, a jury unanimously ruled Friday in a case that has divided Ireland.

The findings from a two-week coroner’s inquest into the causes of Savita Halappanavar’s Oct. 28 death at University Hospital Galway confirmed what her widower, Praveen, has maintained all along: Hospital staff refused to give his wife an abortion, citing the country’s Catholic social policies; waited three days until the 17-week-old fetus had died; then discovered she was in an advanced state of septicemia. She died 3½ days later from organ failure.

At the conclusion of his fact-finding probe the Galway coroner, Dr. Ciaran MacLoughlin, praised Praveen Halappanavar for his courage in protesting publicly against his wife’s medical treatment at the western Ireland hospital, where doctors had refused to perform a termination while the fetus retained a heartbeat. Halappanavar then shook the hands of the six-man, five-woman jury that ruled she died from ‘‘medical misadventure,’’ meaning incompetence in her care.


Outside, he said legal action would continue to try to make particular staff responsible for her death. He said the hospital’s inaction for several days as his wife’s health deteriorated during a drawn-out, painful miscarriage meant she might as well have stayed at home.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

‘‘Medicine is all about improving patients’ health and life. And look what they did. She was left there to die. It’s horrendous, barbaric, and inhuman the way Savita was treated in that hospital,’’ said Halappanavar, speaking on the day that would have been the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary.

The case highlighted a two-decade dilemma in Ireland’s abortion law. A 1992 Supreme Court ruling declared that abortions deemed necessary to save a woman’s life must be legal, but successive governments have refused to pass any law to support the ruling, fearful of voter backlash where Catholicism remains the dominant faith. That has left doctors fearful of facing prosecution for murder if they perform terminations in a country whose constitution contains a blanket ban on the practice.

The government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny has pledged it will pass a law, with related medical guidelines, by July that defines when life-saving abortions can be given. But Kenny’s own party is split down the middle, with Catholic conservatives pledging to vote against the measure amid lobbying by church leaders.

MacLoughlin published eight recommendations for the hospital to improve how it records and shares patient information among staff and monitors the risk of infections and blood poisoning in its patients.


His other recommendation was for Ireland’s Medical Council to publish guidelines defining the exact circumstances when an abortion can be performed to save the life of the woman. These guidelines, long sought by doctors at Ireland’s maternity hospitals, ‘‘would remove doubt and fear from the doctor and also reassure the public,’’ he said.