Would Savita be alive today if Galway doctor’s advice had been taken 30 years ago?

There is something especially powerful about a prophetic voice speaking from beyond the grave. Amid the large volume of correspondence released with the 1983 state papers was a letter from Dr Fergus Meehan, an obstetrician at University Hospital Galway, to then taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald warning him about the likely consequences of the “pro-life” amendment.

One can’t called them “unforeseen” consequences because Dr Meehan, who described himself as Catholic and anti-abortion, spelt them out in great detail – pinpointing the risk to human life of introducing a constitutional ban on abortion that would tie the hands of treating doctors.

Identifying a hypothetical case with echoes of Savita Halappanavar’s, Dr Meehan warned that if the amendment was passed a pregnant woman undergoing life-threatening complications might die in hospital because a doctor “would rather wait until the foetal heart has disappeared”. His letter is reproduced in full here.

Perhaps social historians will give him some credit: a wise counsel to whom we failed to listen.

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Dr Meehan’s request to meet Dr Fitzgerald to discuss his concerns was denied. The obstetrician died in 1991. The referendum was passed by the electorate by a 2:1 majority. In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar died at University Hospital Galway, the institution where Dr Meehan worked. A jury at the inquest into her death returned a verdict of medical misadventure.

Joe Humphreys – Friday, January 3rd

For more on the history of the 1983 pro-life referendum, as illuminated by declassified state papers, see:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/anti-abortion-campaigner-offered-to-water-down-1983-amendment-in-secret-talks-1.1637588

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/noonan-and-sutherland-clashed-over-wording-of-1983-abortion-referendum-1.1637592

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/abortion-referendum-wording-was-seen-as-time-bomb-1.5097

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/constitutional-amendment-that-led-to-30-winters-of-discontent-1.5137

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