Ireland, The World’s Most Principled Country, Allows Savita Halappanavar to Die In Agony

It was 32 years ago that Sheila Hodgers went through agony and eventually died at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda because those in charge refused her painkilling medication.


Because Sheila was pregnant and it was decided that the drugs might harm her baby.  Likewise, Sheila was refused an X-ray, even though the hospital was aware she might have a tumour in her back.  That decision was also made on the grounds that it might damage the child.

Sheila’s life was judged to be less important than the delivery of a baby that could never survive.  Eventually, two days after the child was stillborn, Sheila Hodgers also died at the age of 26, having been denied the most basic dignity of pain-relief.

That was 1980.

Since then, we’ve congratulated ourselves on the progress we made, but how wrong we were.  Just as the collapse of the property bubble exposed our materialistic hubris for the delusion it was, the death of Savita Halappanavar has exposed our delusions that Ireland is a mature nation and no longer a superstition-ridden backwater.

In coming days, I predict that assorted hypocrites will trot out the following worn-out mantra:

Hard cases make bad law.

This is a thoroughly discredited cliché that needs to be challenged wherever it crops up.  Denning, despite his lamentable lapses in dotage, remains the pre-eminent jurist in common law.  He dismissed this sad old adage briskly, as befits the sharp mathematician he was:

It should be deleted from our vocabulary. It comes to this: “Unjust decisions make good law”: whereas they do nothing of the kind. Every unjust decision is a reproach to the law or to the judge who administers it.

It’s nonsense.  Reject it wherever you hear it.  Hard cases do not make bad law.  They demand good law.  A humane society needs to legislate for people such as Savita Halappanavar.  If we are unable to do something that simple, we have no legitimate claim to civilisation.

I have never felt so ashamed of our country. I have never felt so disgusted by our cowardly politicians.  And I have never felt such contempt for the mindless religious ideologues who have shouted us down for so long.




This letter to the Irish Times throws a useful light on the current Irish situation.

Sir, – I feel very sad for Savita and Praveen Halappanavar. I also feel sad for all those doctors who, day in, day out, have to deal with critical illness in pregnant women.

Theirs is a heavy burden, made all the heavier by the knowledge they are held in a legislative limbo that threatens their personal liberty and their livelihood.

The only legislation covering this difficult area is the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which provides for a minimum sentence of two years hard labour, up to penal servitude for life, for anyone who intervenes with intent to cause a miscarriage.

Medical Council guidelines use the words “rare” and “exceptional” to describe circumstances where it may be necessary to terminate a pregnancy. The Supreme Court ruled 20 years ago that abortion was lawful where there was a real and substantial threat to the life, as opposed to the health, of the mother. The Constitution acknowledges to right to life of the unborn “with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”. It is that grey area which poses both a challenge to doctors and a threat to them and their patients.

In the absence of modern legislation, clarifying the circumstances in which termination of pregnancy is lawful, as opposed to potentially criminal, there remains a real risk to the liberty, or livelihood, of a doctor who terminates a pregnancy for any reason in this State. The risk is that another person, whether a colleague, or a member of the public who comes to know of the matter, may report it to An Garda Síochána, or to the Medical Council. The inevitable outcome is a rearguard, defensive position for the doctor.

It is such uncertainty that is likely to lead to hesitation in taking an irrevocable step in the care of a pregnant woman, such as may create dangerous delays and potentially lead to tragic consequences. The Government has already been found in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, by failing to ensure that a woman can secure a legally authoritative determination of what her rights are in her individual situation. It is 20 years since the X case and two years since the European Court of Human Rights judgment, although the relevant application was made five years before that.

The only way in which this situation can be improved, for the benefit of mothers and their other children, and to protect their doctors, allowing those doctors to exercise their clinical knowledge without fear, is for the legislature to accept the responsibility they have sought in elections. The people of Ireland have spoken several times, to indicate that they do not believe abortion is evil in every circumstance. How many women must die due to fear and ignorance, before our legislators will be brave and accountable? – Yours, etc,

Clinical Professor,
Emergency Medicine,
Trinity College Dublin,
Clinical Director/ Consultant
Dept of Emergency Medicine St James’s Hospital,
Dublin 8.


New Statesman


The Guardian

38 thoughts on “Ireland, The World’s Most Principled Country, Allows Savita Halappanavar to Die In Agony

  1. The UK Independent newspaper website are carrying the story with the “This is a Catholic country”angle. Could it be true that these words were uttered in a hospital in 2012 as an excuse for inaction? How many professionals are members of religious secret societies?.
    The fact that this was a family of a different faith was particularly insensitive–but we do insensitive very well in this little hateful country.
    I am not a fan of Luke “Ming” Flanagan. We are Worlds apart in politics and ethos but I remember exactly where I was when I heard him refer to UCHG on the radio as “That dump of a hospital”. He was right. It is a dump; it arrogantly masquerades as a centre of excellence; like Johns Hopkins, Guys,Kings, St. Thomas’ MD Anderson, Radcliffe. UCHG, centre of excellence?. Ming nailed it: Dump.

  2. The words might have been uttered as an explanation. I’ve heard suggestions that the doctor who said this was not Irish.

  3. Well said Bock. From what I have been reading on internet- posts from all around the world,(the likes of Aljazeera even), it would seem that mostly people are utterly horrified that this should have happened. If they knew the half of it, the symphysiotomys, the removal of healthy wombs, the general misogyny on this island, the way women were ‘cleansed’ by priests years ago after giving birth because they’d had sex in order to procreate- I could go on.
    As Kevin McAleer once said,’ the Catholic church, a patriarchal load of s**te. There is outrage out there.

  4. Well put.
    The law is certainly now under scrutiny.
    That her death; a healthy young woman, was overseen by ‘professionals’, is baffling.
    And the Minister wants time.

    Probably for another dose of “A’shur, it’ll be grand”.

  5. Hospitals are presumably driven by government policy. We have legislators and public representatives who dare not go against traditional Roman Catholic mores, not because they are afraid of the clergy, but because they are afraid of offending the middle-aged and elderly electorate who vote for them, drink with them and play golf with them. They feel the need to maintain the façade of Catholic, anything-but-British, identity in which Ireland is purveyed as the last post of purity. The middle-aged and elderly electorate still hold to the Church teaching with which they were brainwashed—that is, in this instance, teaching based on a pre-mediaeval view of embryonic development, taking no account of contemporary biology or of humanitarian needs. The legislators make policy not on the basis of evidence and analysis, but on the basis of the attitudes and prejudices of the bulk of the people who vote for them. Everything is thus at least one generation behind. I suspect that the doctors are ashamed and frustrated at not being allowed to do what is clearly required biologically to safeguard the life of the mother. If you were a young doctor, would you want to stay in Ireland for a training that is ruled by attitudes long since discredited in most of the developed world? Irish medical graduates go to UK or US or Australia or Canada, and many of them stay there. I wonder why.

  6. can you abort a miscarriage? surely all the doctors would have been doing is assisting a miscarriage.
    the real issue is how this woman was allowed to develop a fatal blood infection. a woman speaking on newstalk today, said that the medical counsel advice is to terminate were there is a risk of infection. and from listening to her the impression i got was that terminations have been carried out in the past. if this is true what happened in galway? can they not carry out a blood test?

  7. I’m reluctant, as a man, to be blathering too much about things I only have second-hand experience of, so I’ll keep it brief. Once labour begins, there’s an immediate risk of infection. Always. This poor woman was exposed to that risk for three full days.

  8. For once I am not blaming either the politicians or the church for this tragedy.
    That most precious commodity was missing from galway hospital COMMON SENSE..
    sadly women all over Ireland miscarry every day, year in year out, if they were exposed to the level of care this poor lady wad subjected to we would have a situation like this every month.
    They were free to abort that baby without any fear from the law after the supreme court ruling so why didnt they ?

  9. There was a letter published in the Irish Times this morning complaining the paper had sunk to a new low by publishing this poor lady’s picture and that in the writer’s opinion, the newspaper would stop at nothing in their campaign to introduce abortion in Ireland. (The paper have pointed out that permission to publish the picture was granted by the family).
    Is it just me , or is it usually the case that people who hold these views usually use the Irish language version of their names. I know that I have learned to despise the language, even though I speak it fluently; it’s a sad state of affairs because it can be quite beautiful; I think I hate what it always seems to come packaged with these days; a state of mind, a narrowness of view, a moral superiority and a forever inward looking attitude, them and us. Maybe I hate what it inevitably seems to represent rather than the language itself. Maybe i need counselling.

  10. iCould any one tell me what legal actions might have come about if they had went ahead with the abortion

  11. Bock, you know my opinion on this before I type it. This is disgraceful. I was horrified reading here before the information about the women who had to travel to England unsupported to terminate unviable foetuses. This one breaks my heart entirely. Correct me if I’m wrong but there is a law in place for this. I know it passed in 92 when I was leaving Ireland. I know that. I remember thinking at that time now I’m finally more important than potentially a cluster of cells. Surely every single maternity ward has directives on how to handle this. I don’t buy it that they don’t.

    Something I have thought about all last night is are the doctor’s in Ireland even trained in D and C? They would have to be as a result of the 92 law. If not then we would see that the 92 directive was never meant to be followed. I think again it’s a case of we have the law, enforce it. Has something changed? Was there further restriction?

    I feel like the “it’s a catholic country” could have been said by anyone to the poor husband. A nurse, a doctor, a patient, because god knows it’s like a baby factory at UCHG. I can see how infection could easily occur.

    My views haven’t changed in 20 years. legalise abortion.Trust women. Those who believe your religious dogma will comply with the dogma, those who don’t will choose what is best for them. Don’t have good women flying to England for unviable pregnancy terminations. Take the stigma out of it. Most of all when a woman asks for a termination of a dying and miscarrying foetus (and incidentally her husband full supports it) don’t let her die after days of agony. Jesus Christ !

    I appreciate your humilty Bock regarding the “blathering on, second hand” etc.
    We have been battered here as women in the US in the never ending election. Rape, Children of rape as gifts from God, mandatory ultrasound bills. etc etc etc. What is everyone so afraid of? Trust women. We can make very rational decisions.
    I have jumped out of a car at 8 very large months pregnant to confront men sitting in chairs with their no to abortion signs. You know so little of what it takes to make these decisions, judgement man. Do not make these women feel bad. I am pro choice. I chose to carry both my pregnancies and even though there are times I could hang them up on the clothes line by the two ears I love both kids dearly. That was my choice. Everyone should have the choice to do what is best for them and their pregnancy.
    My heart breaks for this woman’s family.

  12. There’s no law on this subject. Only a supreme court judgement regarding a specific case.

    Successive governments have been too cowardly to legislate.

  13. The X case ! Of course.
    What do you think will happen ? Do you think they have the steel to do it now?

  14. To answer your question Eashtgalwaywoman; yes doctors in Ireland are trained to perform dilatation and curretage procedures, it has a multitude of uses not just for evacuation of retained products of conception (ERPC), the procedure was being performed here long before the 1992 supreme court judgement.

  15. EGW — It would surprise me if any Irish government had the balls to legislate for abortion. These guys value their ministerial pensions too much.

  16. Surely we should wait until we find out the official cause of death before exploding like this? It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the post or the sentiments expressed here, but you (and thousands others) seem to have taken this woman up as a poster child for a cause which may not actually have had anything to do with her death…unlikely as it seems, I know, but still….bet that will start a flame…….
    As a side note, I believe that any doctor that refuses to end a patient’s suffering doesn’t deserve to call themselves a doctor, and the “rules” be damned. I personally oppose abortion of healthy foetuses, but in this case, the poor thing was a miscarriage so technically it’s not even an abortion!
    @EGW – “Trust women” – by legalising generalised abortion all you do is place the life of the woman higher on some arbitrary moral scale than the life of the potential baby. Religion / dogma doesn’t need to come into it, even if we had proof there was no god, and there was no religion, people (myself included) could still argue that the life of the next generation should always be placed ahead of the current one….The only way to get what is *actually* required to help the women who *actually* need it, is some very well defined, specific leglislation for cases like this where there is no chance for the foetus to survive and any chance that not terminating it could harm the mother.
    It really really makes me mad to see the pro-choice lobby jumping on this bandwagon; that poor woman is in reality most likely dead because someone didn’t have the balls to make the right call about her specific situation. We do need legislation for this kind of thing, we need legislation for Fatal Foetal Syndrome as well, and the government does need to grow a pair and make it so. But please, let’s not lump it in with the pro-choice lobby because if you do, the catholic lunatics in this country *will* shoot it down (again) and cases like this will continue to happen…..
    (can’t wait to see the comments branding me some kind of fundamenalist lunatic….)

  17. MPs of successive govts know they will endure hate campaigns in their own towns and villages if they vote approve limited-abortion, don’t you think? Sad but true. With pensions, can only explain 3 decades plus of inertia on this matter.

  18. UN Human Rights has published an interim report (Aug 2011) that is relevant to this subject, some extracts as follows –

    ‘The use of overt physical coercion by the State or non-State actors, such as in
    cases of forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced contraception and forced
    pregnancy has long been recognized as an unjustifiable form of State-sanctioned
    coercion and a violation of the right to health. Similarly, where the criminal law is
    used as a tool by the State to regulate the conduct and decision-making of
    individuals in the context of the right to sexual and reproductive health the State
    coercively substitutes its will for that of the individual.”

    “Criminal laws penalizing and restricting induced abortion are the paradigmatic
    examples of impermissible barriers to the realization of women’s right to health and
    must be eliminated. These laws infringe women’s dignity and autonomy by severely
    restricting decision-making by women in respect of their sexual and reproductive
    health. Moreover, such laws consistently generate poor physical health outcomes,
    resulting in deaths that could have been prevented, morbidity and ill-health, as well
    as negative mental health outcomes, not least because affected women risk being
    thrust into the criminal justice system. Creation or maintenance of criminal laws
    with respect to abortion may amount to violations of the obligations of States to
    respect, protect and fulfil the right to health.”

    Fill report here –

  19. Steve,
    I actually like your calm and thought out approach. I’m not a lobby of any description. I’m a mother and a woman and sorry I do put the life of the mother ahead of the foetus (or next generation). My arbitrary scale is just as arbitrary as yours.
    It does seem that there is a lot of legislation involved and as Bock points out there seems to be a lot of pension protection going on. That seems to suggest that little or nothing will happen.
    However, this seems like a “tipping point” case. Although all the alphabet soup of cases that went ahead of it led me to think that each of them would be the tipping point.
    I can blame the prochoice lobby for jumping on this. It has been every pro-choice person’s nightmare scenario. Imagine being a woman who is begging for help at her most vulnerable state, and being ignored/disobeyed to the point of death. Take all political and religious belief out of it. That’ sjust wrong, and you are right, someone didn’t have the balls to make the right decision. It’s head-wrecking.

  20. I believe that we are at a crossroads in this country. The church promotes the view that there can be no meaningful morality without their guidance. Many people still believe this (The fear of eternal damnation is a strong motivator)
    I don’t subscribe to this notion. Mankind can be moral, considered, caring and compassionate and above all fair, without an institutionalised church. The health and welfare of our citizens and the education of our children are civil matters for a civilised society.
    We need to decide as a nation; Theocracy Plutocracy or Democracy?. When it comes to compassion, I’ll take my chances with my fellow citizens. I’ve had my fill of Voodoo.

  21. Consultant told my wife about the Catholic thingy. Followed a request – denied – for amniocentesis. ” and anyway, this is a Catholic country, there’s nothing you could do about it. ”

    Mind you, a few miles up the road the hillbillies aren’t too keen on womens rights either.

  22. I would like to apologise for the ‘Idiot’ post. It was a reaction to a post that has been since removed. Thanks.

  23. Well said Bock.
    How can you expect a country that broadcasts a psychological form of flagellation on our screens every evening called the angelus to have the capability to legislate properly for abortion for fucks sake?
    Sad day for Ireland.

  24. Just a thought.
    As the hysteria surrounding this awful case grows, are we not going to look even more idiotic as a country, if the investigations currently being carried out show that there were circumstances none of us are currently aware of.
    Also while I sympathise with the lady’s husband, I did not like his comments which were bordering on threathening what his friends and himself would do if there was not action taken. I will put it down to grief. but its not helpful.

  25. Couple of lines from the India Times which sum us up quite well.

    ‘Isn’t there a word for countries that base their laws on religion irrespective of common sense and the value of human life… what’s the word: Fundamentalist? Taliban-esque? Third World?

  26. Steve, well said so many people have given their qualified medical opinion on the facts in this terrible case and blamed Politicans and Priests. What will happen if it turns out that it was a bad medical decision? Imagine a bad doctor!
    Perish the thought though it would be much harder to instrumentalise.

  27. Rob, they were told they couldnt have an abortion because it is a Catholic Country, i dont know how someone could use a medical opinionto blame a preiest or a doctor

    In my opinion the most likely scenario is that the doctor was afraid to carry out the surgery for fear of criminal action due to an unclear law that has been forced upon Ireland by gutless politicians and religious nut jobs

  28. Oh Bock…I haven’t been here in ages but I knew when I read Savita’s story that you would have something to say. I am beyond appalled at the callousness of the medical community and Fine Gael. Their policy of “preservation” resulted in what I’d called negligent homicide (homicide – you can’t tell me the doctors didn’t know she was that sick when they refused treatment. And if they say “we didn’t know” why in the FUCK are you a doctor????). And honestly, this is a great example of what would have happened in the US if we had elected Romney.

    I pray for her every night. No one should have to die like that. For shame.

  29. I would guess the medical community follow the local laws or their interprtation of the rules–if you call this callousness, that’s a possibility, spinelessness may be a better explanation.
    I would guess that many doctors working here in Obstetrics would have carried out terminations of pregnancy when they trained overseas as part of their duties (actually i’m not guessing). It’s not lack of experience.
    It is possible in this case that a bad interpretation was made–the truth is that no one knows yet. What is certain is that there is huge uncertainty among the medical community about the whole area and the great fear is that some bearded fuckwit decides to prosecute because a particular case offends their religious beliefs.
    I agree that in some respects we are more like Afghanistan than a modern progressive democracy. We need clear legislation.

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