Book Review: Savita – The Tragedy That Shook A Nation


What should I tell about a young woman named Savita Halappanavar that she was smart, beautiful and vivacious; that she was a doctor by profession and loved to dance; that she was ever vibrant in personality and had a diamond smile; that she was recently married and was expecting her first child; that her womb had along-with the fetus, some half born dreams of a cherished future; that she died with 17 weeks pregnancy due to septicaemia after being denied a termination despite being repeatedly requested for one.

I remember reading somewhere, “Death smiles at us all; all a person can do is smile back. . .” However, I do wonder how far this statement holds good when the person in context is someone who could have lived more to realize her dreams & to live the life that indeed had laid there in-front of her – half lived, half cherished & half woven, but for the negligence of the system (or perhaps the people therein). . . the person couldn’t even look at it, leave aside smile back.

Last year in 2012, the world was shocked to hear about the sudden death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian working in Ireland as a dentist. The ground of the death was (in simple terms) a medical negligence attributed to the laws of the country related to abortion which doesn’t allow for the abortion until the fetus has a heartbeat. Despite recurring evidence of septicaemia and her deteriorating condition, Savita was refused the termination of pregnancy for about 48 hours until after the foetal heartbeat stopped and there was a spontaneous miscarriage, a delay that eventually led to a life-threatening impairment of her health.

It was in October 2012 when seventeen weeks pregnant Savita walked into an Irish Maternity ward along-with her husband with what seem like an inevitable case of miscarriage. The irony, however, remains that, unknowingly, they also entered into the controversial arena of abortion laws & regulations which till date remains unresolved, despite age old attempts and efforts in this regard. A week later, the lady was dead – the aftermath of this uncalled death was visible in the widespread protest and outrage of the people across the globe. What seemingly got lost in between were the details and essence of the circumstances that led to this unfortunate event.

Kitty Holland’s book Savita: The Tragedy That Shook A Nation attempts to trace the events that led to the death of this ambitious young woman said to have had a ‘diamond smile’; additionally, it also traverses through the complexities of the judicial, legislature and also the medical system of Ireland & sparks off the age old debate about abortion in the country with compounded outrage and indignation.

The book opens with biographical insight into the lady’s geographical and cultural background in Karnataka, India. Gradually it proceeds towards her marriage with Praveen which brings her to the fateful country of Ireland. The chronology of moments (I intentionally use the term moments instead of events) when the couple first learns about their first baby till Savita’s last breath have been meticulously written taking due care of the inherent emotional quotient therein. The author effortlessly blends culmination of the tragic incident with the long awaited reformatory movement in anti-abortion laws of the country, giving due insight to the past critical events in this regard. Ireland, being a Catholic Country, has Europe’s strictest anti-abortion laws, except if there is clear medical threat to the mother’s life. It, perhaps, does a distinction between the threat to mother’s health and the threat to mother’s life but fails to acknowledge that there is a thin line that separates the two.

Further, there exist some not so clear explanations as to what were those conscientious objections which prevented the doctors to proceed with the termination to save someone’s life. Infact, the jury presiding over the whole incident also gave an unanimous verdict of medical misadventure by the people involved, but it still remains a question as to whether it was a fallacy more on the part of the system than the people within or a mix of both. This is also evident from the fact that Savita’s consultant, Dr Katherine Astbury, refused the termination of a life-threatening pregnancy not just because of the interpretation of abortion law; but also because she didn’t think that there was any threat to Savita’s health (as she said in her evidence to the coroner’s inquest: “there was no suggestion that she was in any way unwell…”), which indeed is appalling as the infection should have been suspected from the very moment she was admitted to the hospital. There are various junctures in the book where excerpts of the interview/ interaction with Praveen (Savita’s husband) are given which makes the reader ponder about the state of mind of a husband who has lost his wife in one of the bizarre state of events. For instance, at one point he remarks, “You lose your right basically when you are pregnant here”, reflecting the miserable position of denying the pregnant woman the right to live just because of the fractional heartbeat present in the fetus, knowing fairly well that it would eventually miscarry.

Despite the verdict of the jury, Praveen’s quest of unearthing various answers with regard to Savita’s death remains & he issues proceedings against Galway University Hospital for medical negligence asking them series of questions, the answers of which he aspires to know. It would be worthwhile to mention here that partly in response to the death of Savita Halappanavar, the Irish government introduced the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. It is perhaps, in response to this Praveen wonders if his wife was indeed born to bring change for Irish women.

The best part of the book is that it has been written from the perspective of Savita’s husband & friends. The author pulls together the story of Savita’s time in hospital and also depicts the contrasting points of her story between Praveen’s and the hospital’s versions, narrated before the jury. The whole chronology of events does make the reader sad and angry. The moment you pick the book, a look at the cover featuring Savita’s picture with her dazzling diamond smile, fills the heart with sadness that the lady deserved much better life than she actually had. Further, her husband’s dignified determination and perseverance to discern the truth & bring the change to ensure that such a ghastly experience doesn’t repeat itself also adds to the reader’s overall experience.

However, having said so, the book tends to get stretched a bit too much at some places (like while talking about the legislative position of abortion in Ireland & its historical background). Specifically for an Indian reader, the book might (beyond a point) appear like an educational manual dwelling a bit too much on Irish legislation & regulations, thereby interrupting the flow.

Go for the book if you want to dwell deep into the circumstances leading to the death of Savita & also the reforms that got triggered consequently in Ireland.

Title: Savita: The Tragedy that Shook a Nation
Publisher/ Imprint: Random House/ Transworld Ireland
Pages: 288
Genre/ Sub-Genre: Non-Fiction/ Biography
Rating: 3.50 of 5
Reviewed for: Publisher

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