Savita's story: How one woman's tragic death helped prompt Ireland's abortion referendum

Ireland is holding a referendum on whether to repeal its abortion law. Savita Halappanavar's death helped set it in motion.

Despite her inevitable miscarriage, doctors said they couldn't terminate her pregnancy under Irish law

Protestors hold pictures of Savita Halappanavar during a demonstration in favour of abortion legislation in Dublin, Ireland, on November 14, 2012. (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)
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In October of 2012, Savita Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant.

She was a dentist, born in India, who had moved to Ireland in 2008 and settled in Galway with her husband Praveen.

Praveen Halappanavar arrives at the Galway Courthouse in Galway, Ireland, on April 8, 2013 for the start of an inquest into the death of his wife Savita Halappanavar. (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)

On October 21, 2012, she went to University Hospital Galway after complaining of back pain and eventually suffered a miscarriage. 

Her miscarriage went on for days, but saying they were bound by Irish abortion law, hospital staff would not provide any medical aid to speed up the end of her pregnancy.

A week after she was admitted to the hospital she was dead. She was 31 years old.

Her cause of death was E. coli in the bloodstream, severe sepsis and a miscarriage at 17 weeks.

While her miscarriage was eventually inevitable, Savita's death was not.

After news of her death — and the cause — were made public, protests and vigils were held across Ireland, remembering Savita and calling for changes to Ireland's strict abortion laws.

Today, Savita's name is recognized across the Republic, and she's become a symbol on both sides of the abortion debate.

On May 25, Ireland will hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, which is essentially a constitutional ban on abortion.

Sinéad O'Carroll is a journalist with TheJournal.ie. She has written extensively about Savita and the upcoming referendum.

Below is a transcript of what she told Day 6.

Demonstrators hold placards in memory of Savita Halappanavar during a march from the Garden of Remembrance to the Dail (Irish Parliament) on November 17, 2012. (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)

Savita's story, as told by Sinéad O'Carroll 

Everything was going as normal, she wasn't high risk, and there were no medical factors that caused concern.

It was a Sunday morning and she didn't feel quite right. So about 9:30 in the morning, she had lower back pain and she was assessed and was told that everything was fine, but if she had any concerns, come back. So there was not a huge amount of concern at that stage.

The consultants said that under Irish law, if there's no evidence of the risk to the life of the mother, that their hands were tied as long as there was a fetal heartbeat.- Sinéad O'Carroll, TheJournal.ie

But later on that afternoon, something more upsetting happened, and she felt something 'come down' ... which she had pushed back in.

The midwives unfortunately believed that she was miscarrying, so by that afternoon she was brought in to Galway [hospital] to explain that, more than likely, she was miscarrying and they couldn't do anything. Sometimes at that point you can close the cervix and stitch it to prevent miscarriage, but she was gone past that point.

So at that stage, the miscarriage was going to be inevitable.

The doctors ... put in a plan just to await [the] natural outcome events — that she would kind of miscarry as any normal miscarriage would happen.

It was by midnight that she began vomiting, and then there was a spontaneous rupture of the membranes. At that point she became much sicker, but the plan remained in place — they would await events at this point.

She actually hadn't miscarried yet. While it was inevitable, and the doctors knew what was happening, her fetus still had a heartbeat and that continued through the following day.

Protestors hold pictures of Savita Halappanavar during a demonstration in favour of abortion legislation in Dublin, Ireland, on November 14, 2012. (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)

It was by Tuesday then that Savita and Praveen, obviously devastated by the news [that] their first pregnancy wasn't going to go to term, had asked about using medication to induce the inevitable miscarriage. They were told that this wasn't possible at this stage because of Irish law.

The consultants said that under Irish law, if there's no evidence of the risk to the life of the mother, that their hands were tied as long as there was a fetal heartbeat, so she remained in that condition.

Praveen was staying with her. He stayed overnight on a camp bed. They were given a private room in the hospital so that they could go through this devastating episode together.

By Wednesday morning, she's suffering from nausea and vomiting, and it's at that stage then the consultants and their team decide that, you know, maybe the 'await events' plan isn't the best thing right now because a fetal heartbeat is still within normal range and Savita's vital signs are being monitored but she's not doing well.

It was an absolutely devastating episode for her husband.- Sinéad O'Carroll, TheJournal.ie

She's complaining of chest pain, she has difficulty breathing, by lunchtime on the Wednesday she suffered a deterioration massively in her condition and she's very unwell.

So at that point, on Wednesday afternoon they decide, well, it probably is time to induce a miscarriage. So they included a dosage of the drug to do that. But actually, she spontaneously delivered around the same time so they never actually gave her the medicine to induce the delivery.

From there she was brought into the high dependency unit and her condition continued to deteriorate. She had an infection and she was being diagnosed at that point with septic shock.

A hanger featuring a picture of Savita Halappanavar is displayed during a protest against proposed changes to abortion laws in Spain. (Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images)

Her condition continued to deteriorate over days. She was transferred to the intensive care unit and she just continued to remain ill.

She was intubated. She was ventilated and by the Sunday morning — so you're talking almost a full week from her initial presentation at the hospital — she suffered a cardiac arrest.

About 30 minutes after her cardiac arrest, she was pronounced dead. Her cause of death was E. coli in the bloodstream, severe sepsis and a miscarriage at 17 weeks.

She left a mark not only on people individually, but on Ireland 's medical care. And she also left her mark on the law.- Sinéad O'Carroll

Two weeks after Savita passed away in University Hospital Galway, Kitty Holland from the Irish Times wrote about her death under the headline: 'Woman denied a termination dies in hospital.'

In that initial article, Praveen talks about how his wife had asked multiple times for the medical terminations so her pain didn't have to be prolonged.

They knew their first pregnancy wasn't going to work out. A midwife at the time had tried to explain to Praveen and Savita that the reason that they couldn't have an induced medical termination was because [Ireland is] a Catholic country.

We had already been very consumed in a conversation about the Eighth Amendment and about our abortion laws.

I think Savita's name and face are known the country over. She left a mark not only on people individually, but on Ireland 's medical care. And she also left her mark on the law.

The circumstances of her death continue to be talked about in relation to the Eighth Amendment, and I think it's undeniable that she has a huge place in Irish history.

Anti-abortion campaigners pray outside Leinster House, Dublin, Tuesday May 15, 2018. (Brian Lawless/Associated Press)

This transcript has been edited for length. To hear the full interview with Sinéad O'Carroll, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.