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.

  • Pingback: Savita’s tragic death could have been avoided – UPDATED

  • Cordelia

    Is there anything in shorter supply these days than common sense?

    Thanks for addressing this, Calah – I hope your words get a wide hearing.

  • Pingback: The Tragic Death of Savita Halappanavar UPDATED

  • Anna

    The whole point of this story being trumpeted everywhere and the oddly fortuitous blame-game phrasing (“It’s those Catholics’ fault – surely not malpractice!”) is to shut up the people who are fighting to get the first abortion clinic on the Irish island closed. It opened very recently and has gotten a lot of flak from people who were just as happy that Moloch-worship had, thus far, been avoided there. So a sensational “abortion saves lives!” story was needed to divert attention.
    Also, to clarify, PDE requires that the action be good or neutral; you can’t commit an intrinsically evil act and claim PDE. Then what you have isn’t PDE, it’s “the end justifies the means.” So they couldn’t (for example), do a D&C on a living baby and call it “saving the mother’s life even though the unintended effect was the baby’s death” because the direct action taken was killing an innocent person. But here it doesn’t sound like the baby had anything to do with anything – pregnancy doesn’t cause sepsis, though a missed miscarriage can, but she didn’t have that – so they should have been treating her infection rather than whining about what they couldn’t do.

  • Kaoru Negisa

    Just out of curiosity, how is this case so much different than when the Anchoress supported the excommunication for Mary McBride for performing an abortion to save the life of the mother by saying, “What if that was all the life the mother was meant to have?”

    While you speak of “common sense” and suggest that this is very easy, it seems that there are a lot of subtle factors to consider just for doctors to do their job and still please the Church. Quite frankly, I consider it “common sense” to give an abortion to a woman for whom carrying to term might stop her lungs or heart, but the Church and the Anchoress seem to agree that this was, indeed, a grave sin instead. Would it be any wonder if the doctors were equally confused by a labyrinth of moral imperatives?

    • calahalexander

      To be completely honest, I can’t answer your question. I see this case as much clearer, as the baby literally could not have lived with an open cervix and no amniotic fluid. In the other case, the baby’s life wasn’t at risk, only the mother’s was (I think? The details escape my memory). As far as the Mary McBride case, I’ll admit that the entire case made me uncomfortable and I found no answers, easy or otherwise. It’s a case where I understand the teachings of the Church and find them hard to reconcile with life. But that’s life as a Catholic. If it were me, I would hope that I would have the courage to continue with the pregnancy in the face of my own almost certain death, in the hopes that my child at least would survive. But I can’t say for sure that I would. I know that I would be very afraid. I do think your last point is worth considering, that there in cases such as the McBride one, there are muddy waters and much confusion. But that isn’t the case with Savita. It’s a pretty clear illustration of the principle of double effect.

      • Kaoru Negisa

        The thing is, it’s not that clear. Look at the quote the Anchoress uses. It has so many qualifications with no definitions it makes it impossible to decipher. How long must one “postpone” in order to appropriately qualify for this? What constitutes “urgent”? You’d think that an open cervix leaking amniotic fluid was urgent, but clearly she was able to survive three days, so would that have even qualified? Doctors are facing a problem where they have to play semantic games rather than just giving their patients the best available treatment, and that’s no way to be a doctor.

        To be perfectly frank, from what I’ve read of your stuff, you seem like a good and intelligent person, so I would hope that if you were in the position of the woman in Arizona you would have the courage to recognize that the certainly of your life is preferable to the possibility of another. I would want you, the writer who clearly is passionate and having an impact on the world, to live. However, it’s also your life and your body and I respect that whatever decision you would make, it was yours and yours alone and I don’t get a vote.

        • Ted Seeber

          “to recognize that the certainly of your life is preferable to the possibility of another.”

          But for a Catholic, that isn’t the standard. The standard is instead “No greater love has any man than to die for the life of a friend”.

          • Kaoru Negisa

            And that is absolutely a choice that a person ought to be allowed to make. Unfortunately, that outcome was forced on somebody here, and that’s where it becomes a problem.

        • calahalexander

          What I would want is for my doctor to treat my life and the life of my child as lives of equal value. So yes, if one is definitely lost, no need to lose both. But my baby’s life should be considered when a doctor is trying to give the best available treatment. I don’t think they would have to play games with semantics to do that. And I’m not trying to run from this conversation, but I have to make dinner and put kids to bed, so I’ll be back later.

          • Kaoru Negisa

            I entirely understand about dinner and kids. If I don’t pop back in, it’s because of forgetfulness, but thank you for the conversation thus far. And you’re quite welcome on the compliment.

          • Kaoru Negisa

            That being said, I recommend reading this study by the National Women’s Law Center about hospitals that deny services to women based on religious, often Catholic, doctrine, and in very similar situations to this one. If this is not Catholic doctrine, if double effect is very important, than clearly the Church is not doing an acceptable job of communicating that and if they cannot handle doing so, they have no place telling doctors what they can and can’t do. Until yesterday, most people had never heard of double effect. Most people have heard of Catholic opposition to abortion. One is being stressed much more heavily than the other and it leads to confusion that further leads to lost lives.


        • calahalexander

          By the way, I appreciate the compliment. Thank you.

          • calahalexander

            Kaoru, I read that article. I’ll be honest with you, those are the situations that I do not know how to deal with. I believe that a Catholic hospital should have freedom of conscience, but I also believe that they should make a non-Catholic aware that there is another treatment for ectopic pregnancy (methotrexate). When I was in my early pregnancy with my last baby, I thought (because of symptoms) that he was ectopic. On the way to the ER I reviewed my options, and I was not happy knowing that I would have to have invasive surgery that would damage my ability to have further children instead of taking methotrexate. I was willing to do it because of my faith, but I don’t believe non-Catholics should be held to the same standard. I’ll probably get flayed alive for that, but I don’t see methotrexate as being the same thing as a D&C. Yes, it still kills the baby, but it isn’t a painful, barbaric procedure, and I don’t think the baby would feel any more pain from methotrexate than they would from dying during a partial tubal ligation. But this is different than an outright abortion for non-medical reasons, like taking a morning-after pill, which I would not support, because in that case the baby is not going to die anyway. Does that make sense?

      • bob

        Doctors and nurses are doctors and nurses. They are not catechists. They are not experts on the principle of double effect.
        When the doctor (or nurse, was it?) said the couple couldn’t have the induction because “this is a Catholic country,” the operative word is “country,” not “Catholic.” She was making a statement about the state of Irish law, NOT Catholic teaching.
        The question is whether the employees of this hospital understood Irish law as it’s written, and applied it correctly. If so, then shame on them for not breaking the law to do the right thing, and shame on Irish lawmakers for writing such a foolish law, which presumably is based on a misapplication of Church teaching. If not — if the doctors simply misunderstood and misapplied the law — and could have done the induction legally, then shame on them for not understanding the law on a life and death issue AND for failing to do the right thing regardless of their (mis)understanding of the law.
        Of course, in a sensible society, the phrase “this is a Catholic country” should be as relevant to the civil law as “this is a Northern country” or “this is an island country.”

    • JoAnna

      It’s Margaret McBride, not Mary McBride, and you need to familiarize yourself with the facts of that case. This is a good resource:

      Several OB/GYNs opined, based on the facts available, that the direct abortion was not necessary.

      Also, there is a doctor in Milwaukee with a 100% success rate in treating patients with this exact same condition. Why weren’t her methods employed?

      Simply put, there is no reason to believe, based on the facts available, that the mother in question was in immediate danger of death (she was not even in the ICU at the time — she was still in the regular L&D ward). If she was in danger, then the only licit course of action available would be to induce labor, even if it was foreseen that the baby could not survive. See #47 here: “Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

      In the Arizona case (and I live in Phoenix, so this was ALL OVER the news here when it happened), they DIRECTLY ATTACKED the baby by killing it. It is never permissible to do an evil (killing an innocent child) so that good (saving the mother’s life) may result. That is core Catholic teaching, and one that hospitals that claim to call themselves Catholic must uphold.

  • Ted Seeber

    This is the reason that if we ever succeed in making abortion illegal again, I hope there is an exception, NOT for life and health of the mother, but for conscience protection for doctors and nurses in triage.

    Because that’s what the other side ALWAYS forgets and works against.

    • Karen

      So you’re okay with killing women for being pregnant? That forcing a doctor to save his patient’s life is a bad thing but killing a woman by denying her medical treatment is hunky-dory?

      • S. Murphy

        No, based on Ted’s comments elsewhere, he’s trying to say there shoudln’t be a squicky loophole that allows abortion for any reason by some handwaving about mother’s physical or mental health, but a clear statement that the attending medical personnel are allowed to make their best judgment in triage – in deciding how to save one life, rather than lose two.

    • Gordon

      Letting a woman die like that is not “conscience” and anyone who would do so has no business working in healthcare.

      I don’t “forget” that side, I dismiss it out of hand.

  • Bob

    I’ve read the doctors said they couldn’t terminated the pregnancy until the fetuses heart stopped beating. What do you make of that?

    • Bob

      To clarify my remark: I’ve read the doctors said they couldn’t induce or terminate the pregnancy until the fetus’ heart stopped beating. What do you make of that?

      • calahalexander

        That’s wrong. It’s not Catholic moral teaching. As I understand it, it’s not Irish law, either.

        • Bob

          It’s what the doctors said though. They couldn’t induce until the fetus’s heart stopped because Ireland is a catholic country.

          • calahalexander

            I don’t know what else to say about it. They weren’t following either Catholic teaching or Irish law. They were wrong. Honestly, I’m not sure what else you want me to say. I’m not going to blame Catholic teaching or the Irish laws because some doctor misapplied them.

          • JoAnna

            Then the doctors were wrong. Induction was permissible under BOTH Catholic teaching and Irish law. If a doctor said otherwise, he was lying or ignorant of both the law and Catholic teaching.

        • AnonymousYoungCatholicMother

          Yes, it is Catholic Moral Teaching and Irish Law. The woman needed an immediate, direct abortion, a DandE, not an induction (which can take days) or an indirect abortion (ie. cutting out a diseased uterus and the fetus dies in the process.)

          Learn your faith and admit its teachings are hard. But don’t be dishonest and dismissive because you can’t accept the truth. That is lying and it is cowardly.

          At least Bishop Olmstead could admit the full implications of Catholic moral teaching.

          • Bob

            Calah, I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and I am quite familiar with Catholic “moral” teaching. I do not so freely associate the word moral with Catholic. But, yes, it is Catholic teaching, and, based on what I’ve read, was likely exacerbated by Irish law (or lack thereof). The doctors believed it would be illegal for them to terminate the pregnancy because the fetus’ heart was still beating. It’s clear why they would think that. The lack of a law that would enable them to do their jobs and attempt to save Savita’s life is predicated on (as the doctors’ said) the fact that Ireland is a “Catholic country.” The lack of clarity around the medical decision is the result of the pull of the Catholic Church in Ireland. According to what I’ve read, currently, in Irish law, it is not legal to terminate a pregnancy to save the life of the mother.
            It all seems par for the patriarchal course, really.
            Savita’s loss is our loss. But, how will her friends and family ever get over losing her? Her husband lost his child and wife. It’s impossible to comprehend. I will agree with you that common sense is lacking, but I will not agree that it is to blame here. Not when Savita’s husband asked for the termination. No. Common sense was present at the hospital, but Catholicism trumped it.

          • calahalexander

            I am not a coward, neither am I a liar, and I highly resent being accused of either. The citation for the principle of double effect, under which Savita could have had an induction and, failing that, a C-section, are here:
            The citation for Irish law, under which either the induction or C-section would be explicitly allowed, are here:
            You are right that Catholic teaching would never allow a direct D&C. I’ll defend that. I will never, no matter what the circumstances are, say that it’s okay for an infant to be ripped limb from limb inside it’s mother’s womb. It doesn’t matter if the baby is facing imminent demise; no human being should be ripped apart like that.

          • edivimo

            But calahalexander, I think an induction or a C-section is a direct abortion. The link provided (from Human Life international) gave two examples, uterine cancer and ectopic pregnancy. In this cases I concur that you can’t separate the baby from the organ or “part” you need to remove (uterus or fallopian tube) so you can say is a indirect abortion, double effect and all. But in this case, a induction or C-section would killed the baby directly, in this procedures you pull-out the foetus out of the womb, where it can’t survive. Is like disconnecting a person from a breathing machine (being their mother the “breathing machine”, sorry for the stretching analogy).
            Now, according to this site ( a 17 week abortion is made by a method called Surgical Dilation and Evacuation, that consists in dilatate the cervix and pull-out the fetus with forceps and suction tube.
            My point is, induced labor, c-section and abortion at 17 weeks are quite similar, I’ll concede that the suction and forceps of the abortion is more violent, but the three alternatives pull-out the fetus and let it die, they’re almost equal.

  • Gordon

    “I don’t know why the hospital denied Savita an induction. ”

    Really? You don’t know why? They were very explicit in their answer. They refused because “this is a catholic country”.

    • calahalexander

      I guess what I meant was, I don’t know why they believed as they did, given that it’s in fact contrary to both Irish law and Catholic teaching.

      • jose

        It doesn’t have anything to do with catholics lobbying for heartbeat legislation (a pro-life darling) and fighting against making the law more clear and delaying every effort to reform medical guidelines. Nothing to do with creating a climate of fear and uncertainty that makes doctors think they might be accussed of murder for saving lives.

        They kept checking the heartbeat and stalling despite being an obvious miscarriage until it was too late to save her life because of that. Will this make catholics rethink their absurd -and, as we’ve all seen now, antiwoman- stance on heartbeat lobbying? Of course not.

        • JoAnna

          Perhaps you should learn facts before making ignorant statements:

          The doctors could have induced labor or performed a C-section if necessary. They did not. They also apparently did not test for nor treat her infections. This is clear medical incompetence and the abortion laws had nothing to do with it.

          • jose

            Tell that to the doctors who were afraid to do the stuff you describe because they thought the law forbid it and the catholic church fought to stall and obstruct a reform of medical guidelines that would have clarified their stupidly confusing law.

            If you think catholics have nothing to do with the heartbeat stupidity, that’s truly ignorant.

  • Dan O.

    “Being pro-life doesn’t mean being a bug-eyed zealot who ignores reality and insists that God will work some miracle.”

    It seems that it certainly can mean that (although surely not usually). Or do you believe the husband is lying?

    • calahalexander

      No, you’re right, It can mean that. I guess I should have written, “Being pro-life doesn’t always mean being a bug-eyed zealot.”

      • Bob

        I don’t understand. You are not okay with the non-viable fetus being taken from the womb (in whatever way is medically necessary) to save the life of Savita. (And, whether are not the fetus’ heart was still beating, it was no longer viable… ie there was no way to save the fetus, and the doctors’ acknowledged that).
        So, to repeat, you are fine with Savita’s death (and, potentially, killing), but not fine with terminating the fetus by a medically necessary procedure that would have saved the life of the child (and, again, this end was going to happen for the fetus anyway)?
        I don’t like the tone that you and the other people on this site take. I stop practicing Catholicism when I was 18 and could make my own choices. The sickening hypocrisy I saw as a child growing up in Catholic schools (mostly from priests, nuns are much better) was the primary reason for this decision.
        Other people in my family, who I respect dearly, remained Catholic. They are devout, and spend time in the church and community and give freely of their time in caring for others. They have found ways to overcome the issues the Catholic Church has brought to the fore, but, at the same time, they don’t defend the Church blindly. Rather, they are still able to see important reasons to have the Catholic Church in their lives despite it’s shortcomings. And, they would never, ever talk in these blanket terms about right and wrong.
        So….. who are you to decide it’s OK for Savita to die, but not for the fetus to removed by D&C? I’ve forgotten more about Catholicism then most people have ever even learned, but I would never, EVER be so bold as to claim I knew what God thought right. Shame on you and all of those who are justifying this act.
        You have a site called “barefoot and pregnant,” so you are the authority on all things pertaining to Catholicism, motherhood and children? Please. The moral outrage you are expressing over people’s feelings about the Catholic Church is superficial and annoying. The Catholic Church is shameful. It fell from grace long ago, and instead of trying to right it’s ways, it attempts to control women. The irony would be laughable if it weren’t killing people.

        • calahalexander

          Bob, I never claimed to be an authority. The title of my blog is ironic. I don’t think it’s okay that Savita died, and I think an induction or C-section should have been performed. But no, I don’t think it would have been right to tear apart an innocent child either. The child had to die; it didn’t have to be tortured. There’s a difference. I made it pretty clear in my post that I’m not in any way justifying this act.

          I love my Church and my faith. I don’t follow it blindly; most of it’s teachings I’ve wrestled with pretty seriously until I’ve come to see the wisdom therein. The others I take on faith, because I’m asked to. I’m not expressing outrage over people’s feelings about the Church, I’m just clarifying what Church teaching is. I’m sorry you find me annoying. You’re welcome to leave my blog.

          • Bob

            I still don’t understand how you can say it’s okay for Savita to be tortured. There is one person in this case who was CLEARLY (no debate about it) a human being… that was Savita.

            It doesn’t matter what my stance or your stance or anyone’s stance is on whether or not the fetus is a person… we all know that Savita was a human being.

            I don’t understand how you can presume it would be torture for the non-viable fetus to have been terminated by d&c (and, by the way, you are therefore supporting the withholding of needed medical treatment), but, not see the torture of Savita as a criminal, murderous act.

            You are, therefore, deciding which “medical treatment” is morally appropriate and which isn’t. You are playing God, my friend. By the way, playing God is against Catholic teaching.

            The condescending outrage I referred to can be found in the beginning of your article, “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**.”

            You can claim that this was a “humorous” remark, but it is more of a vaccination against those that would criticize. You’re already discounting those who would give you a thoughtful, critical remark as one who just automatically hates the Church… rather than one who might see it for what it truly is. I, for one, am not an “abortion advocate,” still I was taken aback by this pronouncement of good/evil at the opening and it is what prompted my remarks.

        • Bob

          You said, “I will never, no matter what the circumstances are, say that it’s okay for an infant to be ripped limb from limb inside it’s mother’s womb. It doesn’t matter if the baby is facing imminent demise; no human being should be ripped apart like that.”

          And, I would like to point out, in this case, the circumstances are the slow and painful death over 7 days of a young and vibrant woman by sepsis!

          If you (or, say, your 15-year old daughter) were in such a state, would you be feeling so confident in your stance? Please.

          My thoughts are with Savita’s husband. He’s lost his child and he had to sit there and watch his wife suffer and die. I can’t even begin to imagine his pain and grief. Shame on you for pronouncing this such a clear cut case. Further, you are suggesting a LONDON newspaper understands Irish law. Try reading the Irish Times for discussions of the real issues going on in that lovely, but torn apart country.

          • JoAnna

            Who the hell said it was okay for Savita to be tortured, Bob? For heaven’s sake! NO ONE should have gone through the pain and horror of her experience, but what happened to her was NOT due to Ireland’s abortion laws, but rather the doctor’s ignorance of them. Look at the FACTS:

            Her infection should have been tested for and treated. IT WAS NOT. Her labor should have been induced, or a C-section performed, even if the baby was non-viable. Both are permissible under Catholic teaching and Irish law. Neither were done in time. This is a clear case of medical incompetence, not bad abortion laws.

    • AnonymousYoungCatholicMother

      Um, hello, Terri Schiavo?

      That was when I saw the true face of the pro life movement and it scared the bejesus out of me.

      • JoAnna

        How so?

  • Tim in Cleveland

    I’m not entirely familiar with the specifics available so far, but I find it interesting that the doctors’ excuse for not performing induced labor was that “we are a Catholic country.” Using my own “common sense”, I believe that the medical field isn’t all that concerned with religious (or philosophical) scruples, and would have performed the induced labor if it would have saved the mother’s life (which would have probably been in line with Catholic teaching). But if the mother’s life was in peril no matter what, could it have been that the doctors were just using an excuse for not performing induced labor, one better than “we can’t do that because you are going to die anyway”? The doctors could have been negligent, or maybe they realized that the mother was going to die no matter what, and just weren’t able to tell her that (being human and all).

    It seems like one should wait for the investigation to be completed before making any kind of judgment on what happened.