The 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, who was unable to get an abortion in Ireland, set off nationwide opposition to a ban on the procedure. What happens when a similar case arises in Poland?
WARSAW — Have Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his PiS political party allies ever heard about the tragedy that happened in Ireland eight years ago? Do they know what unfolded in a waiting room of the Galway Roscommon University Hospital?
They will remember that Irish anti-abortion laws had always been as restrictive as they are in Poland right now. But they know those laws changed two years ago — and it can be traced back to that hospital in central Ireland in 2012.
The patient was named Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist and amateur Indian dance instructor. She was 17 weeks pregnant. She said she was in pain and felt there was a problem with her pregnancy. Doctors found that the fetus was in very poor condition, but its heart was still beating. Irish law at the time only allowed abortion if the woman's life was in danger.
Savita's husband, Paraven Halappanavar, an engineer at a medical instruments company was told that "Ireland is a Catholic country and we can't terminate a pregnancy..." His wife was sent home, where she experienced excruciating pain for four days straight. Paraven demanded an abortion, pointing out that he practiced Hinduism and that the tenets of Catholicism did not apply to him or his wife. The doctors refused, fearing prosecution and imprisonment (in Ireland, a doctor faced possible life imprisonment for an abortion, though it usually turned into a 10-year sentence).
On October 28, 2012, Savita died from sepsis caused by the complications that followed her spontaneous miscarriage.
Paraven Halappanavar sued the Galway University Clinic, as well as the Irish government. Soon after, 20,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Dublin, demanding the lifting of the ban on abortion in the Irish Constitution.
Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis caused by the complications that followed her spontaneous miscarriage — Photo: Karl Burke/DPA via ZUMA Press
This ban had been quietly violated for years through abortion tourism practiced by Irish citizens traveling to Britain. The Catholic Church in Ireland remained steadfastly opposed to the lifting of the abortion ban, even while it extended its sympathy to Halappanavar's family. Bishop John Fleming explained that putting the life of an unborn child and its mother on the same level takes root in the teachings of the Church. According to the Bishop, this is why Ireland has the lowest rate of infant deaths: four per 100,000, while in the U.S. and the rest of the European Union, the number rises to 14 per 100,000.
Yet Savita's case awakened the conscience of the Irish public and, in 2018, in a referendum, 66.4% of the participating citizens voted to remove Article 8, banning abortion from the Irish Constitution. In 2019, a new law was introduced, giving women the choice to have an abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy. Savita Halappanavar's story had become a key element of the pro-choice campaign that led to the new legislation.
There is a risk that doctors will fear recommending an abortion even in cases where there is not necessarily a "threat to the life" but also the health, of the patient. In such cases, they face a three-year prison sentence and may feel safer not taking any decision.
There is a risk that doctors will fear recommending an abortion
Poland's ruling party plans to create perinatal hospices where women with difficult pregnancies can be kept under medical surveillance – proof that the PiS party is preparing for a scenario similar to the one Savita endured.
Another argument: the projected allowance of 20,000 zlotys ($5,300) for giving birth to a child with a severe defect. This allowance, called a "coffin payment" by some, is supposed to encourage women to give birth – and probably to take unnecessary risks.
The situation in Ireland doesn't always translate into Polish conditions. The two societies, although Catholic, are different. In Ireland, despite the strong position of the Church in 2012, the government did not have the same chance to use the media as the Polish government does to influence society. And this, I fear, will soon create a new pop culture model for women: modern saints. The ones who wanted to "give birth at all costs' in order to prove their faith.
Jarosław Kaczyński, who has spent years manipulating fundamentalist circles of the Polish right-wing to serve his own purposes, has for the first time become their hostage.