I'm sitting in a crowded coffee shop and I'm making a woman cry. At least, that's how it looks. Tears are slipping down the laugh lines in her cheeks, and one hand rests on her small belly. People around us are covertly staring.
But we're not discussing her pregnancy, not yet. We're talking about Savita Halappanavar, the Ireland resident who died from pregnancy complications four months ago, in a country that doesn't believe in abortion. "Except, of course, when a woman's life is in danger—they all add that caveat," the woman across from me says. "Like your pregnancy is a game of chicken they can play."
When Halappanavar was told that she was miscarrying, the 31-year-old dentist and her husband mourned the loss of what would have been their firstborn child. According to reports, they were eager to start a family. But, as there was nothing Halappanavar or doctors could do to save her 17-week-old fetus, she asked for an abortion to speed up the heart-wrenching process.
And she was denied.
According to Halappanavar's husband, they were told, "This is a Catholic country." Even though abortion wasn't against the Hindu couple's religious beliefs, they were told that her fetus still had a heartbeat, and as long as that tiny heart kept beating, doctors would do nothing to speed up her body's inevitable miscarriage.
Still, she asked, day after day, according to her husband, as her body grew weaker, her blood pressure dropped and her fever spiked, and she became disoriented and afraid. Doctors and nurses monitored her for infections but told her husband there was nothing more they could do, even as she vomited and her breathing became irregular. Finally, on October 24, three days after being admitted to the hospital, the fetal heartbeat stopped. Doctors snapped into action, and within hours, Halappanavar delivered a dead fetus. But it was too late for the aspiring mother: Despite the steady stream of antibiotics being administered to her, infection set in, then septic shock. As Halappanavar lost consciousness, her now-empty womb bloated with infection and her skin turned blue, according to her husband's reports. Doctors assured him that she was young and she'd bounce back, even as her body shut down, even as she could no longer breathe on her own and her body wouldn't respond to dialysis. One week after being admitted to the hospital, Halappanavar died.
If one good can be taken from Halappanavar's slow and likely avoidable death, it's that the world witnessed it and an important dialogue began: Whose ethical or religious conscience reigns supreme in hospitals—the patients whose health is at stake or the institutions caring for them?
Here in Washington, 4,500 miles from Ireland and a world away from that country's Catholic-driven politics, it's easy to clutch your pearls and dismiss Halappanavar's death as a horror story. After all, Washington residents voted to legalize abortion in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, and we've consistently upheld a woman's right to access abortion services since then.
But cases like Halappanavar's exist in Washington State. In fact, they've happened right here in Seattle.