Two investigations are under way into the death of a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant, at University Hospital Galway last month.Ireland is one of the few developed nations which bans abortion, and those who oppose its anti-abortion laws have taken up this case as a rallying cry, despite the fact that it appears that Irish law would not in fact have prohibited treatment of Ms. Halappanavar even if the treatment would have resulted in speeding the (probably inevitable in this case) death of her child:
Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.
Speaking from Belgaum in the Karnataka region of southwest India, Mr Halappanavar said an internal examination was performed when she first presented.
“The doctor told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.” The doctor, he says, said it should be over in a few hours. There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.
“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.
“Again on Tuesday morning, the ward rounds and the same discussion. The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.
“That evening she developed shakes and shivering and she was vomiting. She went to use the toilet and she collapsed. There were big alarms and a doctor took bloods and started her on antibiotics.
She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.
The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.
The question that needs to be asked is: was Ms Halappanavar treated in line with existing obstetrical practice in Ireland? In this kind of situation the baby can be induced early (though is very unlikely to survive). The decision to induce labour early would be fully in compliance with the law and the current guidelines set out for doctors by the Irish Medical CouncilIn this regard, Irish law and medical practice are in line with a Catholic understanding of the principle of double effect, which is to say: Not only did Irish law not mandate that the hospital decline to treat Ms. Halappanavar, but Catholic teaching does not either. And, indeed, Ireland is right to be proud of its record of caring for the health of both mothers and children. The percentage of women who die of pregnancy related complications in Ireland (6 out of every 100,000 pregnancies) is half that of the pro-choice UK and less than a third of that of the United States. Most Catholic and pro-life writers that I am aware of have been quick to point out that this tragic case is not an example of the Irish law working as it was intended, but rather the reverse. The exception is a hysterically self indulgent rant written by Sam Rocha at the Patheos Catholic Portal. Having prefaced his piece with the warning that he intends to vent, Rocha writes:
Those guidelines allow interventions to treat women where necessary, even if that treatment indirectly results in the death to the baby. If they aren't being followed, laws about abortion won't change that.
The issue then becomes about medical protocols being followed in hospitals and not about the absence of legal abortion in Ireland.
Professor John Bonnar, then chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, spoke about the matter to the All Party Oireachtas Committee's Fifth Report on Abortion, saying: "In current obstetrical practice, rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention is required at a stage in pregnancy when there will be little or no prospect for the survival of the baby, due to extreme immaturity.
"In these exceptional situations failure to intervene may result in the death of both the mother and baby. We consider that there is a fundamental difference between abortion carried out with the intention of taking the life of the baby, for example for social reasons, and the unavoidable death of the baby resulting from essential treatment to protect the life of the mother."
With this medical practice Ireland, thankfully, has one of the lowest death rates of mothers in pregnancy anywhere in the world.
These idiots — who denied Savita Halappanavar an early induction that would have saved her life — deserve court and confession, prison and penance.So, headline story is angry, in good old chest thumping style. He self-consciously drops a swear word to let us know he's really serious, and he loudly demands that people go to jail. I'm not normally one to run down my fellow countrymen, but I have to say: Is there anything more typically American than the conviction that whenever something bad happens it must because some wicked person needs to go to jail for a long time? No wonder we have a ridiculously overloaded prison system. Demanding the imprisonment of others becomes a form of moral preening for us.
These idiots also happen to be my religious kin. They used the word ‘Catholic’ and their Irish national identity carries a long, storied relationship to my Church. In this case I might as well be an Irishman. We cannot throw out the uncomfortable and inconvenient; we must face it and speak to it directly. When your brother or sister commits a heinous crime, you cannot disown them. You are responsible. There is nothing easy or tidy about it.
Guilty by association. That’s me. Guilty. It is not fair and it doesn’t follow rationally, but it does resonate because it should. I am my brother’s keeper. I will not try and be calm about this. I’m certainly not a fucking journalist. I write this as a Catholic, a furious, outraged Catholic. Nothing more and nothing less.
What is it that makes Rocha so angry? Why does he consider that Catholics as a group are guilty by association in Ms. Halappanavar's death? Rocha admits that Catholic teaching and Irish law both agree that the way Ms. Halappanavar was wrong.
First, the physicians in question did not deny Savita an abortion. They effectively aborted her, the mother. In doing so, they violated the statutes of the Irish Medical Council and, therefore, the law. They were not following the law of the land and deserve to be tried in court (for at least involuntary manslaughter) and quarantined from the Irish medical community.So if the medical staff who acted wrongly here acted contrary to Catholic teaching, why is the Church the target of Rocha's self accusing outrage?
Catholic teaching and doctrine on this point derives from the principle of Double-Effect. It is well-established and very old doctrine, grounded in philosophy more than theology. It can be found in Augustine and Aquinas, and more. It can be rationally understood and practiced. These medical professionals failed to understand or practice it. Their failure, their total ignorance on what the Church actually teaches, puts them in grave offense against the Church. They need to confess and begin penance — hopefully while doing time in prison.
Even though the Church teaches otherwise, the fact that these people were so poorly catechized is an evangelical, mystogogical failure that all the faithful must embrace and share. We should not reject the fact that this spectacular failure to understand the holistic reality of pregnancy is a particularly Catholic mistake.So the Church teaches otherwise, and Irish law directs otherwise, but because the medical staff cited "this is a Catholic country" as their reason for not acting in this case, it's the Church's fault. To Rocha's mind, it is the Church's fault because the Church should have done a better job of teaching these people to understand Catholic morality. Admittedly, we don't actually know if the hospital staff in question were actually Catholic in name or practice, they may have just been engaged in the sort of passive aggressive rule enforcement for rule enforcement's sake which is occasionally found in large organizations in which people come to care more about covering their perceived liability under "the rules" than about actually achieving their mission. However, the Church's failure to teach successfully is not Rocha's final target here. That target turns out to be political.
LIFE IS NOT AN ISSUE. It is not a political trophy to be used to get votes or preserve things you like or get rid of things you don’t like. The simplistic binaries that pit women against their children and infants against their mothers has gone on long enough. ENOUGH!So there we have it. Irish doctors refused to give Ms. Halappanavar the medical help she so desperately needed because American Catholics don't discuss the pro-life/pro-choice political divide in a way that Sam Rocha happens to like. Once again, I feel like I'm talking for "the other side" here, but: Can we get any more Ameri-centric than this? Why should we imagine that the problem here is American discourse on "social issues" is the cause of what happened in Ireland? Does Rocha know where the major Irish political parties stand on abortion and how the issue is discussed in Ireland? I'll be the first to admit: I don't. But then, I didn't decide to go write a rant on the topic.
I am sick over the fact that I suspect that one reason these perfect idiots thought they were following Church and State mandates had something to do with this: life has been violently re-cast and perverted into a talking point, a sanctimonious — and expensive — lobby effort that is rooted in oversimplification and vulgar imbalance. Even those on right side of the matter are on the wrong side.
My silence on the beautiful question of life has been because I don’t find an easy entry into the matter. There is no room to talk about this in a way that respects the reality in question. So I’ve mostly held my tongue.
Today my silence reveals a slothful and selfish cowardice. This is not the time for silence. I fled the conversation because of election politics and the bitter, infantile rivalries within the American Catholic Church. I said to myself “I am a man. I should let the women and the infants speak for themselves.” Excuses. “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
The empty-headed, calloused opportunists — despite their truest and very best intentions — have had their say. We know what the pro-choicers and the pro-lifers think. They have NOTHING new to say or add and haven’t for years. What we don’t know, and surely do not begin to understand, is the event itself. Life. The bare reality.
Savita was not aborted through malice. She was aborted because of ignorance and silence. For this reason, her death is worst than malicious. It could have been prevented by the very national and ecclesial traditions it misinterpreted. What a failure.
Does our political discourse in the US on this issue tend to get divisive and bitter very quickly? Of course. Political faction tends quickly to lead to simplification, dehumanization of the opposition and anger. This happens all the more so on abortion because the issue is so personal and the stakes perceived by both sides are so high. While I support the pro-life movement, I don't for a moment imagine it doesn't fall prey to these problems. In order for truth to be conveyed, these problems need to be fought aggressively. However, what Rocha does in this piece is not engaging in constructive criticism of how the pro-life movement behaves. Rather, he takes a horrible event, the unnecessary death of a young mother, and yanks it out of context in order to serve as an opportunity for moral preening.
Savita Halappanavar did not die because Rocha failed to sufficiently speak out against American political discourse that he finds distasteful. She died because the hospital staff she encountered failed to act as Irish law, Catholic morality, normal medical practice and basic human decency would demand. The hijacking of her death to make political or rhetorical points, however angrily self-righteous, is wrong.