Savita’s Death and Common Sense


I’m sure by now most have you have seen this story that’s going viral on the internet and being used by abortion advocates everywhere as one more reason to hate the evil Catholic Church. I wasn’t going to write on it after I saw the Anchoress’s excellent post on the subject, despite predictably snotty goading, but after thinking over what I would do if I were in Savita’s situation, I decided to write on it.

To sum up, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the story: Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old woman living in Ireland, presented at the hospital with back pain and was found to be miscarrying. She died of septicemia a week later. The details are muddled about exactly what happened, but it seems that the morning after she was admitted, she and her husband accepted that they were going to lose their baby and asked for an induction. The couple’s request was refused because Ireland “is a Catholic country”. They were told that “as long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything.”

Go read the Anchoress’s post for the complete breakdown of the moral philosophy in the case. The short version is that this is ridiculous. If (and because of the lack of details, this is a big if) the induction would have saved Savita’s life, of course she should have been induced. No baby can survive with no amniotic fluid and a fully dilated cervix. No one with a lick of common sense would argue that the pregnancy should continue at the peril of the mother. The delivery and death of the baby would be an unintended consequence of saving the life of the mother. That’s called the principle of double effect, for those of you moral philosophers out there. Once again, let’s remember that being Catholic and pro-life doesn’t not mean being anti-science, or anti-reason, or anti-common-friggin-sense.

There’s a lot of questions surrounding this story. If the septicemia set in as a direct result of Savita’s cervix being fully dilated for days and infection setting in, then the prompt induction of the baby would indeed have saved her life by preventing the initial infection. If, however, as is so often the case in hospitals, she contracted septicemia through an IV line or unsterilized equipment, then the delivery of the baby wouldn’t have changed her outcome and in fact is completely irrelevant. Delivering the baby wouldn’t cure septicemia.

If I were in Savita’s shoes, and checked into the hospital with a fully dilated cervix and leaking amniotic fluid at 17 weeks, I would be devastated. I would mourn for my child, who was sure to die. I assume, given the country I live in, that my OB would immediately induce me. However, if no one suggested it, I would certainly request an induction. It is medically negligent to leave a woman in the state that Savita was left in. Being pro-life doesn’t mean being a bug-eyed zealot who ignores reality and insists that God will work some miracle. I do believe that God can work miracles, but I don’t go around expecting them in daily life. I don’t even expect them in times of great crisis. I certainly wouldn’t expect that if I only refused an induction, my amniotic fluid would somehow be miraculously restored and my cervix would close and I would go home and we’d all live happily ever after. God isn’t a fairy godmother.

I don’t know why the hospital denied Savita an induction. Even if the septicemia had already set in, it sounds like she was in physical pain from the stalled miscarriage. She should never have been treated like that. But this was a clearly a case of a lack of common sense, medical malpractice, and a complete failure to understand Catholic moral teaching on the subject of abortions. These are the types of cases where the Church clearly allows induction of the baby to save the life of the mother. Blaming the Church for the death of Savita is like blaming Nietzsche for the Holocaust. Just because someone misunderstands a philosophy and uses that misunderstood philosophy to justify someone else’s death doesn’t make the original teaching flawed. It seems to me that this terrible story and the equally terrible reaction to it both show how bereft our modern society is of simple common sense. Common sense might have saved Savita’s life. It certainly would have prevented the hysterical plundering of a personal tragedy for public vendettas.


Update: Please read Sam Rocha’s post on Savita’s death. It is much, much better than what I’ve written here, and every Catholic ought to read it and really take to heart what Sam says.

  • bob

    For those who are honestly interested in learning about Irish law and the way it did (or did not) pertain to Savita, there are numerous articles on it in both the Irish and NY Times.

    For example:

    From what I’ve read, the laws as they pertain to this matter (despite supreme court legislation over 20 years) have not been changed or clarified since the late 19th century.

  • gwen

    Excuse me for being such a later commenter here but it seems to me 2 glaring details are left out of the post and the discussion: #1) Savita was Hindu; at what point was the faith and moral theology of the patient considered? #2) I keep seeing it mentioned that Ireland has a glowing report for the healthy delivery of babies-(for mom and baby); however an estimated 4,000 women (and the number is probably far greater) seek abortions every year in England. Just because the procedure is illegal in one country (and a Catholic one at that) does not magically make women stop seeking this service.

  • Darren

    A pretty good refutation of everything just said in the main post, put better than I could.

  • Your Mother

    Here’s the issue: being Catholic isn’t the problem. Having corrupt politicians using Catholicism as a reason to kill a woman is the problem. Abortion needs to be legal, at least in some cases, because of this. We will always be the bad guy because women die because idiot men are in power, using the church as reason for murder.

  • Hate_every_4th_year

    Link to statements from the SOCIETY FOR THE PROTECTION OF UNBORN CHILDREN (SPUC) on how double-effect does not allow induced delivery of non-viable children.

  • claire

    the problem is the catholic church does not permit direct termination of pregnancy in any circumstances (see the catholic bishops statement).
    It does permit it when it is a secondary unintentioned consequence eg removal of a gravid but cancerous uterus.
    However there are circumstances in the first and second trimester when the only treatment is direct termination of the pregnancy.

  • Maureen O’Brien

    It took a lot of courage to write that blog. good for you!