Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

We must act on abortion before tragedy hits home

Savita Halappanavar

The most poignant detail of the death of Savita Halappanavar is that, as she was wheeled into the operating theatre, she talked of her hope of having more children in the future.

It underlines the need for Edwin Poots, our health minister, to move quickly to issue abortion guidelines here to avoid the possibility of a similar tragedy.

Here in Northern Ireland, Savita's optimistic and upbeat attitude to the future, though tragically mistaken, might well have denied her the abortion which might have saved her life.

Her husband, Paveen, said that, days earlier, she had begged for a termination after being told that she was likely to miscarry within hours.

She was, Paveen said, "in agony", but was denied a termination on the grounds that a foetal heartbeat could be detected.

The medical judgment was that she would miscarry, anyway, which she did, on October 24, before dying of septicaemia - a blood infection - four days later.

Inquiries have still to be carried out to see whether an abortion, at the point where her pain started and she asked for it, would have prevented the fatal infection, as her husband suspects.

What is clear is that she died, the foetus did not survive and that the other children she had hoped for a few days before her death will now never be born.

Savita would probably not have got one here, either. The tests to be applied under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act and subsequent case law are fairly clear.

It would have had to be shown that continuing the pregnancy to its natural conclusion in miscarriage would have been very likely to result in severe, or long-term, damage to her physical and/or mental health.

Savita did not meet these criteria. She was a bright, happy married woman with a blossoming career as a dentist and a lively social life in Galway and its Indian community.

This was no crisis pregnancy; it was a hoped-for child. Savita was devastated by the miscarriage, but, as late as October 24, she was hoping for more children.

It would have been a brave NHS doctor who would risk a possible sentence of life imprisonment by signing off on an abortion in these circumstances.

If she had gone to the Marie Stopes clinic, the same tests would have applied. In any case, the Belfast clinic does not offer abortions after nine weeks.

Savita was 17 weeks pregnant when the pain started, she was told she was likely to miscarry and she asked for a termination.

Marie Stopes in Northern Ireland could not have helped, though in England they could. She would have been well within the time limits there, even if they were reduced to the 20 or 22 weeks sought by pro-life campaigners in Britain. She would also have qualified in her native India.

Our 1861 abortion legislation was drawn up before there were even reliable tests for pregnancy available for women, much less indications of potential miscarriage.

There is an unanswerable case for modern guidelines, which take account of medical and social developments in the last century-and-a-half.

Stormont should not duck its responsibilities on this one.

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