Would Savita's plight have been different in Australia?

A pro choice rally for the late Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died of blood poisoning after being refused a medical termination at Galway University hospital in Ireland last month.

A pro choice rally for the late Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died of blood poisoning after being refused a medical termination at Galway University hospital in Ireland last month.

A young woman goes to an emergency department after being raped. She fears she may be pregnant and asks for an emergency contraceptive pill but is denied one.

She persists and asks for a referral to a rape crisis centre where she can obtain one but is also told no.

Another woman’s foetus dies. She asks to have labour induced for fear that if it remains in her body too long she will develop blood poisoning and die. But the hospital tells her no. It is the only hospital in the woman’s rural town. No one told her that the policy of the Catholic hospital is not to perform sterilisation, abortions or to provide emergency contraceptives.

The cases - recounted to Leslie Cannold from Reproductive Choice Australia - both happened in Australia.


The latter bears an eerie similarity to that of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died of blood poisoning after being refused a medical termination at Galway University hospital in Ireland last month.

Ms Halappanavar’s husband was reportedly told by the hospital: ‘‘This is a Catholic country.’’

Restrictions on abortion are nowhere near as stringent in Australia as in Ireland.

But because abortion is the responsibility of the states the laws in each state and territory are different.

It might surprise people to realise that abortion still remains the subject of criminal law in most  Australian states and territories.

Only the ACT, Victoria, the Northern Territory and WA have removed it from the criminal statutes though other states have provisions for medical professionals who grant a woman’s abortion request on grounds of her physical or mental health. This has the effect of making abortion available to women in some circumstances.

A termination can be relatively easily obtained by a woman in a large city who can afford to have one and has access to a variety of healthcare services. Neither she nor the doctor involved have reason to fear prosecution.

But the situation is not so easy for women in rural or regional areas, for women on low incomes or for women who, as the stories told to Leslie Cannold show, end up in a Catholic hospital either unaware of the restrictions on treatment or because that was the nearest hospital they were referred to in an emergency.

Abortion law reform has largely stalled in Australia with the focus in recent years on the provision of emergency contraceptives such as RU486 rather than changing legal definitions.

Even the most pro choice MPs are often hesitant to speak out on the need for further changes believing that because abortion is largely accessible it would not be worth the fight with anti abortion organisations.

Some MPs talk about not wanting abortion to become the inflammatory issue it is in America and argue that because abortion is available there is no point raising the question of further reform.

There is also the question of a conservative rump of MPs who would certainly fight further reform.

But the example of what happened to Savita Halappanavar raises the question of what would happen to an Australian woman with the same circumstances who was taken to a Catholic hospital.

Given there are 21 public Catholic hospitals and 54 private ones - or about 10 per cent of all hospital beds - there is a reasonable chance of being treated in the Catholic healthcare system.

A recent paper written by Melanie Poole, the parliamentary advocacy coordinator with Care Australia, points that although life saving abortions are legal in Australia Catholic hospitals give equal weighting to both the lives of the mother and the foetus.

‘‘This would seem to suggest that, at least where the foetus is non viable, the mother’s life will be put first,’’ Poole says. ‘‘However, further qualifications state that interventions can only occur where ‘any harm to the unborn child is neither the intended goal nor a means to the treatment goal’.”

Women’s health advocates say the situation that arose in Ireland could easily happen to a woman in an Australian Catholic run hospital. But the chief executive officer of Catholic Health Australia, Martin Laverty, disagrees saying that in the same situation the mother’s health would be the priority for medical staff.

‘‘The health of the mother must be prioritised if her life is in jeopardy,’’ he says. ‘‘The clinician would  prioritise the saving of the women’s life even if it results in the unintended consequence of the death of the baby.’’

Mr Laverty says Catholic hospitals ensure patients are aware of the services they provide such as putting the code of ethics on the internet.‘‘At the point of admitting if the patient asks about a particular service staff are very comfortable in advising what’s available,’’ Mr Laverty says.

But he defends the right of Catholic hospitals not to offer every medical service. ‘‘Very few hospitals in Australia are able to provide a full range of services,’’ he says. ‘‘The emergency system prioritises you into the service that best suits your needs.’’

Whether a woman in the situation of Savita Halappanavar would be in a position to question the types of services on offer is debateable. ‘‘Savita’s death is a tragedy and a warning to Australians of the risks associated with the  medical care pregnant women can receive at hospitals run by the Catholic Church,’’ Leslie Cannold says.

Dr Cannold says women may prefer to choose a non Catholic hospital if they were made aware that some services might not be available. ‘‘This is an intolerable situation,’’ she says.‘‘To change it, both women and doctors must resist the stigma that surrounds abortion and speak out about the problems for pregnant patients and doctors who want to provide quality of care in Catholic hospitals.’’

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon goes further saying publicly funded Catholic hospitals should provide all services regardless of their religious beliefs. “Limiting care for women based on religious principles can compromise medical treatment, sometimes with tragic results,’’ Senator Rhiannon says.

‘‘The right of women to choose, including the right to access emergency contraception and abortion, are now recognised as important human rights and there should be an obligation on all hospitals to clearly disclose any limitations on care and offer referrals to other services.’’