Savita Halappanavar and Religion

The case of Savita Halappanavar has brought the intrusion of religion into medical practice to the fore once more. Halappanavar died at an Irish hospital, apparently due to complications from a delay in terminating a non-viable pregnancy. Reports tell us that the delay was the result of the refusal of the attending physician(s) to actively terminate and wait until the foetal heartbeat ceased which happened more than 2 days after a termination was indicated and requested.  Apparently, at one point she was told “this is a Catholic country”  and “as long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything“.

Those words should never be spoken in a hospital setting. A physician’s highest priority is the life of his or her patient. A patient’s religious beliefs should be factored into any treatment, but a doctor should leave their religion outside of the clinic.

The Catholic Church is clear in its teachings on abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman

Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother.  It is erroneous to put the question with this alternative: either the life of the child or that of the mother.  No, neither the life of the mother nor that of the child can be subjected to an act of direct suppression.  In the one case as in the other, there can be but one obligation: to make every effort to save the lives of both, of the mother and of the child….

Deliberately We have always used the expression ‘direct attempt on the life of an innocent person,’ ‘direct killing.’  Because if, for example, the saving of the life of the future mother, independently of her pregnant condition, should urgently require a surgical act or other therapeutic treatment which would have as an accessory consequence, in no way desired nor intended, but inevitable, the death of the fetus, such an act could no longer be called a direct attempt on an innocent life….

Honourable and skillful doctors are therefore worthy of all praise when they make every effort to protect and preserve the life of both mother and child.  On the contrary, those who encompass the death of the one or the other, whether on the plea of medical treatment or from a motive of misguided compassion, act in a manner unworthy of the high repute of the medical profession,

The Irish Life Institute. an organization that, as far as I can tell, is a Catholic organization, is pushing a highly irresponsible campaign suggesting that abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life. At the same time, they are criticizing any attempt to politicize the issue.

I have no direct knowledge surrounding the circumstances of this tragedy. From all reports I have read, including some from physicians, such as Dr. Jen Gunter, Ms. Halappanavar’s death should have been preventable. With the available information, she offers her expertise as an OB/GYN.

As Ms. Halappanavar died of an infection, one that would have been brewing for several days if not longer, the fact that a termination was delayed for any reason is malpractice. Infection must always be suspected whenever, preterm labor, premature rupture of the membranes, or advanced premature cervical dilation occurs (one of the scenarios that would have brought Ms. Halappanavar to the hospital).

As there is no medically acceptable scenario at 17 weeks where a woman is miscarrying AND is denied a termination, there can only be three plausible explanations for Ms. Hapappanavar’s “medical care” :

1) Irish law does indeed treat pregnant women as second class citizens and denies them appropriate medical care. The medical team was following the law to avoid criminal prosecution.

2) Irish law does not deny women the care they need; however, a zealous individual doctor or hospital administrator interpreted Catholic doctrine in such a way that a pregnant woman’s medical care was somehow irrelevant and superceded by heart tones of a 17 weeks fetus that could never be viable.

3) Irish law allows abortions for women when medically necessary, but the doctors involved were negligent in that they could not diagnose infection when it was so obviously present, did not know the treatment, or were not competent enough to carry out the treatment.

What we do know is that a young, pregnant, woman who presented to the hospital in a first world country died for want of appropriate medical care. Whether it’s Irish Catholic law or malpractice, only time will tell; however, no answer could possibly ease the pain and suffering of Ms. Halappanavar’s loved ones.

There is no doubt in my mind that the anti-choice campaigners, including the Roman Catholic Church have helped to set the stage for this to happen. In the first 2 scenarios mentioned by Dr. Gunter above, the direct responsibility belongs to religious teachings, the primary difference between them being whether the influence was at the government or the individual level. Those who are claiming to be pro-life while attempting to legislate the interactions between a woman and her doctor are not pro-life at all.

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