Once in while we must all look back and wonder if that offer of a job, of a relationship or a social step-up was one we should have taken.

Opportunity is a strange beast. So much of it is whimsical and based on “what if”, which is why I find the use of this word so hard to comprehend when used in the case of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist from Galway, Ireland.
This case is huge–its implications wide. It asks us questions of equality, right to life and of religious belief versus moral duty.

Ms Halappanavar’s case is so far beyond tragic, it’s almost impossible to understand. In black and white terms a woman died, despite begging for the abortion of a miscarrying foetus which was very quickly killing her. In a hospital. Surrounded by competent and trained staff. In a well resourced facility. In a developed country.


Stark isn’t it? Ms Halappanavar wasn’t just fighting for her life, she was fighting the whole establishment. She was fighting a system which legislated her death.

Naturally, there were investigations. Ireland’s Health Service Executive published its own report which cited the country’s controversial abortion laws as a contributing factor.

The investigation team is satisfied that concern about the law, whether clear or not, impacted on the exercise of clinical professional judgment.

– the report stated.

I’m not debating the rights or wrongs of abortion law in Ireland. It’s an exhausting, emotional and thankless task. In truth, I’m not even sure there’s enough legislation in the world that could even begin clarifying where the rights of the unborn child end and those of the mother begin.

And still there it is, this troubling case where opportunities to save a life were missed, not once but more than a dozen times, where a medical team, out of fear of the consequences, dragged its feet. Where the law allowed an otherwise healthy young woman to die. Or at the very least removed her chance of fighting the sepsis which had invaded her body.

A year after the case came to light the Irish Parliament passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. This act provides the option of abortion for a woman or girl whose life is at risk during pregnancy. And yet the confusion still remains.

It reminded me in many ways of the Church of England debates on gay marriage. Tying itself up in knots over which areas of a homosexual lifestyle were acceptable and which, they believed, were totally incompatible with living a life of faith.

These “grey areas” continue to put patients at risk and frustrate the medical community. It’s not acceptable. How could we expect anyone to work to their best of their ability if the fear of prosecution lurks behind them like a malevolent shadow?

Earlier this year Ms Halappanavar’s family settled out of court with the hospital. And four years after her death, life has moved on. And yet this isn’t going anywhere, this tangled mess of legislation, faith and belief.
I, for one, am not brave enough to suggest any kind of answer but I do believe we are heading in the right direction. We must seize the opportunities to debate how best to protect all life, to bring equality into medical practice and into the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society.

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