The reporter who broke the story that set off a storm of worldwide criticism of Ireland’s abortion laws is questioning Praveen Halappanavar’s account of the death of his wife, Savita. Kitty Holland reported in the Nov. 14 edition of the Irish Times that Praveen claimed his wife requested an abortion and was denied one because the child had a heartbeat and “this is a Catholic country.” Although the article stated that Savita died of septicaemia and E. coli ESBL, the headline was: “Woman ‘denied a termination’ dies in hospital.”
On a radio interview the weekend of Dec. 1-2 on Dublin’s Newstalk 106 hosted by Marc Coleman, Holland acknowledged that the Praveen’s account was “muddled” and that she would wait for the inquiry to get the full story. “Who knows what will come out in that inquiry? They may come back and say she came in with a disease she caught from something outside the hospital before she even arrived in, and there was no request for termination,” she said.
Coleman pointed out that three days later, Holland inserted a disclaimer in a piece she wrote for the Observer stating that it was not confirmed whether denial of abortion caused Savita’s death – such a statement was missing in the initial Times article. “I was reporting the concerns of the husband …whereas my piece in the Observer was a more kind of background piece from my point of view,” explained Holland.
“But Holland and the rest of the Irish and international journalists never referred to any ‘muddled’ recollections or to the possibility that there ‘was not request for a termination’ when abortion campaigners were shrieking that Savita had died because she couldn’t get an abortion,” said Niamh Uí Bhriain, head of the Life Institute, in a news release. “This has been the most cynical and deplorable exploitation of a tragedy that I have ever witnessed in my lifetime.”
Hospital notes about Savita’s care have no record of her asking for an abortion. Moreover, on Dec. 3, Praveen’s lawyer, Gerard O’Donnell, told the Irish Independent, “Mr. Halappanavar has never claimed in any interview that a termination could have saved his wife’s life.” He only wants to know why it was refused.
Savita’s story sparked a premature outcry in the international media against Ireland’s tough anti-abortion law, with the hospital refusing to comment or make conclusions until a proper investigation has taken place. Sarah Ditum of the Guardian criticized pro-life reactions to the situation and concluded that “The poverty of antiabortion rationalisations tells us exactly how little value such logic really places on women’s lives.” The first BBC headlines on the case state “Woman dies in Ireland after abortion request ‘refused’,” and “Abortion ‘would have saved my wife Savita Halappanavar’.” Judith Woods of the Telegraph wrote it was “a shameful time to be Irish, Catholic and anti-abortion,” and that it was an example of “Faith at its very worst.” The Irish Times also published several columns using Savita’s situation as an argument to legalize abortion – these include an opinion piece written by Clara Fischer (a pro-abortion activist) and an attempted debunking of pro-life talking points by Fintan O’Toole. All of this was based on a less-than-complete, if not erroneous report of what actually occurred.
This interpretation spread across the ocean, with the New York Times reporting, “The death of a woman who was reportedly denied a potentially lifesaving abortion … has revived debate over Ireland’s almost total ban on abortions.” One headline in the Toronto Star atop a story from the Associated Press claimed that “Irish doctors seek new abortion law after death of Indian woman Savita Halappanavar.” Professor Fionnuala McAuliffe, spokeswoman for the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Ireland, though, told the Independent that doctors would simply like more clarity and that the Medical Council’s code of ethics already allows doctors to perform abortions if the mother’s life is at risk.