The husband of a woman who died after being denied an abortion in an Irish hospital accepted an apology Thursday from a midwife who, when explaining why the plea was rejected, said Ireland was "a Catholic country."
The apology came during a coroner's inquest this week into the Oct. 28 death in University Hospital Galway of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist living in the western Ireland city.
Arguments over her death have sparked large public protests on both sides of the abortion debate, and forced the government to take action to clarify when the law permits abortion to end a life-threatening pregnancy. Such practices supposedly were legalized by a 1992 Supreme Court judgment, but governments since have refused to pass backing legislation because of strong anti-abortion sentiment in this predominantly Catholic nation. Abortion rights advocates argue that this legal confusion directly contributed to Halappanavar's death.
Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when, hospitalized for pain, doctors informed her that the fetus would die. As her miscarriage pains worsened over the next three days, doctors refused her pleas for a termination because they could still detect a fetal heartbeat. By the time the fetus did die, Halappanavar was suffering from blood poisoning and died of organ failure 3 1/2 days later.
The inquest, which is hearing testimony from 16 hospital staff and several external medical experts, is seeking to identify flaws in her care — and rule whether an abortion might have saved her life.
Her widower, Praveen, in November accused hospital authorities of risking his wife's life unnecessarily in defense of Catholic anti-abortion doctrine. He said one hospital official had bluntly told him, when they protested that as Hindus they should be permitted an abortion, that they couldn't because Ireland was Catholic.
The senior midwife at the hospital, Ann Maria Burke, took the stand Wednesday. She surprised many by admitting she'd made the "Catholic country" comment and apologized directly to Praveen Halappanavar, who was present in the Galway courtroom.
"It was not said in the context to offend her. I'm sorry how it came across," Burke testified. "It does sound very bad now, but at the time I didn't mean it that way. It was the law of the land and there were two referendums where the Catholic Church was pressing the buttons."
She was referring to referendums in 1992 and 2002 on proposed amendments to the constitution, which bans abortion. In both cases, the government sought public approval for legalizing abortions only to stop a physical threat to the woman's life, but excluding a threat of suicide as reasonable grounds to grant an abortion. The Supreme Court had ruled that credible suicide threats also should be sufficient grounds. Voters on both sides of the issue rejected both measures, leaving the legality of life-saving abortions in legal limbo.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Praveen Halappanavar said he was impressed and surprised by Burke's testimony. He had expressed fears that no hospital official would admit making the remark, leaving him branded as a liar or a fantasist.
"I would like to thank her for being so honest. It (the admission) came out of the blue," he said.
Halappanavar also had his lawyers issue a statement to the court praising the emergency-room staff for their "valiant efforts" to save his wife as she fell into a coma and her organs failed.
The inquest has already heard evidence indicating that hospital staff broke accepted protocols for monitoring the health of a woman miscarrying, especially regular checks for blood poisoning and ensuring that all key staff saw the blood-test results promptly.
On Thursday lawyers detailed eight places where Savita Halappanavar's 110-page medical file had extra information added to what were supposed to be contemporaneously taken notes. Some details were added two weeks after her death.
The Galway coroner overseeing the inquest, Dr. Ciaran MacLoughlin, said he'd never seen so many retrospective entries in a patient's medical records. A lawyer representing the hospital, Declan Buckley, noted that the entries were clearly labeled by date and added to ensure the most detailed record of care decisions was presented to the court. He said there was "never any intention to mislead anyone."