Eilis O'Hanlon: Savita inquest uncovered the facts, but verdict has set stage for further furore
Both sides in bitter abortion debate are set to resume hostilities as widower takes his case to Human Rights Court
Published 21/04/2013 | 05:00
IN THE beginning, it seemed that the best course of action might be to instigate a full public inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar. Her husband, Praveen, wanted it. The family's lawyers were pressing strongly for it. International opinion, particularly in India, was very much distrustful not only of Ireland's ability to find the truth about what happened to this young woman in University Hospital Galway, but whether it had the will to do so, while the independent inquiry set up by the HSE under Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran was being rubbished by many even before it had begun its work.
It would have been understandable if the Government had concluded that handing the whole matter over to a public inquiry would be the simplest way to wash its hands of a potentially explosive problem. Instead, the Government held out fast against those calls, fearing that, once all the participants lawyered up in the heat of legal battle, an inquiry would become prolonged and politicised and, yes, costly, because that matters too, and it might do more damage than good.
And now that the inquest into Savita Halappanavar's death has concluded in Galway, it should be acknowledged that they were proved right. It was possible to get to the truth of what happened to Savita using the ordinary methods of inquiry available to the State. What's more, it could be done relatively quickly. If we had gone down the route of a public inquiry, it might still be dragging on. It might even have barely got started. And there would still have needed to be an inquest afterwards.
There will be fights in the coming days and weeks over what the medical misadventure verdict means for Ireland's abortion laws – pro-life and pro-choice activists have been champing at the bit for months in a sort of shadow war as they awaited a chance to recommence hostilities for real. They'll get their wish soon enough.
Praveen now intends to take Ireland to the European Court of Human Rights over his wife's death. There is still the publication of the HSE report to come too. For now, though, it's surely more important to acknowledge that those who were tasked to tell us what happened did what we asked of them. For once in these cynical times, when so much else of our civil system is regarded as broken or unfit for purpose, the system not only worked, but was seen to work.
Despite the intense passions and terrible divisions which were stirred by Savita's death, the inquest went about its work methodically and quietly and got as close to the truth of what happened as any process could have done, given the differing interpretations of those involved.
Much of the credit for that should go to the Galway West coroner Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin, who created a dignified public space where all but one of those involved in events during those days felt able to engage freely with the process and be respected.
Critics may feel cheated by the lack of blame which was laid on the shoulders of individual hospital staff members, but that was outside the remit of an inquest; and the verdict, together with the nine recommendations approved by the jury, matter less anyway than the narrative of Savita's death that emerged during the inquest.
That clearer understanding has freed us from the crippling version of this story that was initially presented to the country by the Irish Times, which sought to shape this woman's tragic death into a rallying cry for a change to Ireland's abortion laws. In a sense, they immediately dug the trenches and we all dutifully took our places on either side of the battlefield and began shooting at one another before we even had all the facts. That has been hugely damaging.
Now that those facts are known, neither side can or should take too much comfort from them. It is clear that Savita died because she had severe sepsis which was not properly treated; an earlier abortion may have saved her life, but the reason she did not get one was because doctors failed to ascertain that her life was in danger. That was the crucial failing. Using that situation to campaign for abortion on the basis of the X case was mischievous at best and insensitive and opportunistic at worst.
The issue of suicide as one ground for abortion is another debate for another day. By the same token, pro-lifers cannot deny that Savita may have suffered more than was necessary because of flaws in Irish abortion law. In another country, an earlier abortion may not have saved her life either, as sepsis spread aggressively, but there should never be any confusion about what women in crisis are entitled to expect from their medical care. Most women in Ireland are treated well, but if even one woman dies or suffers unnecessarily, that should trouble us – it's not good enough, and we should do what we humanly can to ensure it doesn't happen again.
The best tribute to Savita now would be for the Government to clarify the precise legal situation as to when women are entitled to abortions in obstetric emergencies; indeed, Praveen himself said in his interview with the Irish Times yesterday that this is what he wants to happen: "I do hope it for Irish women and I owe it to Savita. I know her parents want that too." The rest is noise.
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