On October 18, 2012 Representative Joe Walsh (R-IL), who was running for re-election, stated in a debate that he was against abortion without exception. When asked to clarify what that meant when it came to the life of the mother, he stated: “With modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance,” he said. “… There is no such exception as life of the mother, and as far as health of the mother, same thing” (Salon). His statement was proved unequivocally incorrect just ten days later when 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, a married dentist living in Ireland, died of a blood infection after being denied an abortion during a miscarriage (Christian Science Monitor).
Abortion was first outlawed in Ireland in 1861 with the passage of the Offences Against the Person Act. In 1983 Ireland amended its constitution to protect the unborn “with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother” (Christian Science Monitor). The Supreme Court then ruled in 1992 that abortions could be provided if there was “a real and substantial risk” to the life of the mother. These seemingly contradictory laws led the European Court of Human Rights to determine that the law as it stood in Ireland was likely to result in unnecessary deaths, as doctors would refuse to terminate pregnancies due to fear of prosecution (Christian Science Monitor). This could very well be what happened in the case of Savita Halappanavar.
When Halappanavar arrived at the hospital suffering from severe back pain during her 17th week of pregnancy, hospital staff informed her that she was experiencing a miscarriage. When the pain became unbearable, she asked that the pregnancy be terminated. However, she was denied the termination, as a fetal heartbeat was detected: “Three days after the request for a termination was made, the fetus died and was removed. Four days later, Savita was dead from a blood infection”(CNN). While there is currently an inquiry underway to determine what exactly occurred in this case, Savita’s husband doesn’t believe that anyone will be held accountable for his wife’s death; documentation of the couple’s request for a termination, and the doctor’s response, seems to be missing from the medical notes: “We’ve seen some tampering (with) the medical records — basically some key information in the medical reports is missing” (CNN).
While it remains to be seen if this tragic death will lead to real change in Ireland, it is clear that in the United States, voters in Illinois believe that the life of the mother does indeed matter. Joe Walsh was voted out of office on election day. Walsh may have lost his seat in the House of Representatives, but Savita Halappanavar lost her life when a decision was made that an unviable fetus was worth more than the woman carrying it. Whether we are talking about anti-abortion rhetoric or real practices that endanger women’s lives, we need to truly stop and think about what we mean when we say that we value all life.