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Doctor who led inquiry into Savita Halappanavar's death calls for Yes vote 'for women’s health and rights'

He also refuted claims that sepsis was the only cause of her death.

Prof Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at St George's University of London.
Prof Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at St George's University of London.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

THE DOCTOR THAT led the inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar has called for a Yes vote in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to uphold “women’s health and rights”.

Professor Sabaratnam Arulkumaran said that “if you don’t support legal abortion, then you support illegal abortion”. Although abortion is illegal in Ireland except in cases where the life of the mother is at risk, there are provisions in law to allow women to access information about terminating a pregnancy and to travel abroad.

Arulkumaran  has also clarified claims around Savita’s death, saying that the Eighth Amendment was a major factor. He refuted claims that sepsis was the only cause of her death, as has been claimed by some during the course of the referendum debate.

He said that although “she showed signs of sepsis that were not well-recorded”, he said that the healthcare team that were looking after her were “really going for the foetal heart all the time, even when she had a heart rate of more than 160bpm, high temperature they didn’t think of terminating”.

“The next morning, they were listening to the baby’s heart. They were worried that if they did a termination they might be accused of performing an illegal act by not complying with the Eighth Amendment. So I think it’s important to recognise that.”

Even on the last day, before she went into septic shock, they were checking the foetal heart rate, whether it was present or not.
So they were waiting for that time for things to escalate.

When asked whether the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill (2013) dealt with the problems that led to the death of Savita, and that the Medical Council has issued guidelines indicating that the risk to life need not be immediate, Arulkumaran answered that his report showed the Eighth Amendment “was a material risk to the woman”.

In another country where there was not such a restriction they would have terminated the pregnancy two or three days earlier.
Whatever about what people might say, that morning just the fact that the health personnel wanted to listen to the baby’s heart that morning when she was severely sick, just indicates how worried the health personnel were about terminating the pregnancy.

“So I don’t have to go beyond that… The fact they went to listen to the heart rate was because they were worried about what people or [the Department of] Justice might say.”

When asked whether he believed if a woman in similar circumstances today would have legal question marks over her healthcare, he answered “absolutely”.

“The law as it stands is not enough to save the permanent health of the woman so I think it’s the right time to consider that and to change and to say ‘Yes’ to this particular referendum.”

Over the weekend, Savita’s parents called for a ‘Yes’ vote in Friday’s referendum on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment, with her father saying “I strongly feel that the younger daughters of Ireland should not have the fate of Savita”.

At an event organised by the Irish Family Planning Association, Arulkumaran addressed a number of other medical issues that had been raised during the course of the referendum debate, including claims that abortion rates rise after it’s been legalised.

He also praised the way Ireland has approached the Eighth Amendment debate, saying that it had been done in a “democratic way”, referencing the Citizens’ Assembly and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth.

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