Last month the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar became international news. Halappanavar died in Ireland, the story goes, because she was not able to obtain a legal abortion. The story was reported around the world, with three Toronto papers featuring it prominently within their first three pages.
On Oct. 21, Halappanavar believing she suffered a miscarriage at 17 weeks sought to have her child removed. Doctors at University Hospital in Galway discovered the child’s heartbeat, so they would not kill or remove the unborn child because Irish law does not permit. Three days later, the baby died and was removed, and Halappanavar was diagnosed with septicaemia (blood poisoning). Four days later, she, too, died. A week later media outlets around the world took up the cause, saying if only she could have had a legal abortion, Halappanavar would be alive today.
However, the Guardian reported that an autopsy revealed that the cause of death to be a combination of septicaemia, E.coli ESBL, and documented ante-mortem. While an abortion might have prevented the septicaemia, is may have already been present; E. Coli ESBL, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, can cause septicaemia, which is spreading in the United Kingdom. But the full medical story cannot be used clamour for legal changes to Ireland’s abortion laws.
While the name of Savita Halappanavar popped up in media stories around the world, there is a good chance you haven’t heard of Tonya Reaves. Reaves, a 24-year-old black woman, died in a Chicago hospital after a botched abortion at a Planned Parenthood facility in July where she obtained a legal abortion at 12 weeks that led to her lethal haemorrhaging. But there was little media coverage of Reaves’ death and her story was not picked up in any newspaper halfway across the world.
There is a clear double standard. If a woman dies because she did not have access to legal abortion – which has not been proved definitively in the Irish case – it is held up as a reason for more permissive abortion laws. But if a woman dies at the hands of an abortionist the story gets buried because it is deemed irrelevant to the legality of abortion. It would seem only fair, however, that if women dying because of a lack of abortion services is cause to reopen the abortion issue, so, too, would women dying from legal abortions be relevant to the public debate.