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.

  • mildlymagnificent

    “they realized that the mother was going to die” most certainly without proper treatment. She didn’t get the treatment. She died. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

    What the doctors faced was certain death of the foetus and possible death of the mother. If they had no chance of saving one, why would they not try to save the other? If they’re interested in her delivering healthy, living children, they’d already dealt with her question about how soon after the loss of this one could she and her husband start trying for more. They knew this pregnancy was wanted and its loss was distressing both parents. They knew she wanted to try for more now that this one was doomed.

    For the sake of a few more hours of a dying heart feebly beating in a septic stew, they killed not only a patient, they killed a wife and a future mother of a couple of children. I don’t call that respect for life. And I certainly don’t call it the ethical practice of medicine.

  • AnonymousYoungCatholicMother

    My understanding is that any direct abortion is forbidden under Catholic Moral Teaching. A fetus can only die as an indirect action, ie: taking out the whole uterus if it is cancerous, taking out a burst tube for an ectopic pregnancy, etc. Catholic Moral Teaching DOES NOT allow a direct abortion for ANY reason. This of course means a woman with an ectopic pregnancy can’t flush it out with methotrexate; she has to have the tube removed. A woman suffering from a septic miscarriage can’t get a D and E. Which leads me to point 2…

    And induction can take DAYS. An induction would have had the same result.

    What she needed was a D and E, which is a direct abortion. A termination. That would be against Catholic Moral Teaching, against Irish Law, and could have resulted in these doctors being prosecuted.

    It is often impossible to know the line between what is necessary for a woman’s health and her life in the moment. Hindsight s 20 20. Unfortunately hindsight doesn’t bring her back.

    Of course, I knew extreme pro lifers would find a way to spin this. I did not think it would be quite this oblivious to truth. I thought it would just be dismissive.

    But the bottom line is regardless of the theological and medical nuances the woman died because the “pro life” laws lead her doctors to believe thy could not help her without risking themselves. As people do in situations like this, they hoped it would just work itself out, because no one wants to have to be the one to make the courageous choice that will end his medical career and possibly result in arrest. Laws that forced the theology of a religion this woman did not even belong to into the medical decision of her doctors led to her death and were a disgusting violation of her human rights and her religious liberty.

    And for those who cry “but what about aborted babies…!”

    Well, I will be honest. I do not give a damn about aborted fetuses. The vast majority of abortions are first trimester or so deformed (anacephaly, etc) they have no chance. A first trimester fetus has no consciousness. They have no sensation. They feel no pain, do not fear, do not care if thy live or die. According to most major religions they do not have equal worth to a woman or born life (including in the Bible, an interpretation confirmed by Jewish rabbinic tradition, irregardless of what self serving convolutions Jimmy Akin comes up with.). Fetuses are not equivalent to black slaves (who felt, and suffered, and who, while oppressed, where always believed to be persons…heck, it was the NORTH that wanted them to only count for 3/4s for political reasons, and so make a pretty dumb example of dismissing someone’s personhood) nor are they equivalent to Holocost victims, or any other examples of genocide where actual sentinent human beings suffered and had their lives destroyed. Their ‘personhood’ is merely theoretical, and not accepted by most world religions or legal traditions.

    So no, I do not care about theoretical ‘personhood’ as much as real, living, thinking, and breathing personhood. No one with a shred of humanity runs into a burning building and saves even a thousand frozen fertilized eggs over one born, living, breathing baby unless they are an ideologically drunk monster. Somehow this idea that early fetal life was not as important as later fetal and born life was all considered common sense for thousands of years, including by Aquinas, Aristotle, and Augustine, the Jewish and Muslim theological traditions, and most laws, but now such a “No sh*t, well Duh,” observation makes you a baby killer and bad Catholic.

    Be ‘pro life’, if you truly believe in full personhood from the moment of conception. I respect that. It is honest. It is consistent. But do not come up with denial and dishonest convolutions to hide that your ideology has serious implications for women’s health. That is not truth. If you believe so fervently in fetal personhood, you should be able to defend the hardness of this truth. You should be able to admit it results in the deaths of women, and accept that as a consequence, but worth it for the babes, or better yet, an opportunity for a woman to be a martyr for the cause of life. But do not be in denial. That is cowardly, and it is lies.

    • Karen

      Thank you. This is the best summary of my position I’ve read. Please, Catholic Church, grow a spine and admit that you are totally okay with killing women by pregnancy. If women wanted to matter in the world, we would have been born with penises.

      • Bob

        Thank you both.

      • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

        BULLSHIT. Sorry for the profanity, Calah, but that’s the only term that aptly describes Karen’s statement.

        The Catholic Church is never okay with “killing women by pregnancy.” The Church believes that mother and child BOTH are human beings with human dignity, unlike the pro-abort zealots who believe that babies are worthless, valueless objects who can be killed with impunity for any reason.

        Does this sound like “killing women by pregnancy” to you? “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.”

        SERIOUSLY?

        LOOK AT THE FACTS. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/timstanley/100189912/irelands-abortion-laws-we-need-to-get-the-facts-straight/ Abortion laws did not kill this woman. Medical incompetence did.

        • calahalexander

          Hey dude, you don’t ever have to apologize for profanity around here. (You know, within reason). Otherwise I’d have to apologize at the end of 80% of my posts. Also, thanks. No one wants to kill women, via pregnancy or otherwise.

  • Ruth

    From what I understand about moral theology, the most pro-life thing would have been to deliver the baby and offer it the same care given to other severly premature babies. Was the baby still a few weeks away from even the record of the earliest babies being saved? Yes, and there is about a 100% chance that the baby will die. But there was absolutely no chance that it would servive in a septic body with no amniotic fluid, so the delivery and care would have actually been the only way to try and save it. It would also give the parents the chance to say goodbye. By offering the baby care, the doctors would have had a good personal defense as well: clearly they were not disregarding the life, they were trying to save it from a toxic environment.

  • Ruth

    From what I understand about moral theology, the most pro-life thing would have been to deliver the baby and offer it the same care given to other severly premature babies. Was the baby still a few weeks away from even the record of the earliest babies being saved? Yes, and there is about a 100% chance that the baby will die. But every time a new record for survival is set, it is set because a doctor takes the chance to try and save the baby even though it had never been done before. But there was absolutely no chance that it would servive in a septic body with no amniotic fluid, so the delivery and care would have actually been the only way to try and save it. It would also give the parents the chance to say goodbye. By offering the baby care, the doctors would have had a good personal defense as well: clearly they were not disregarding the life, they were trying to save it from a toxic environment.

    • Ruth

      Sorry for the double post!

    • calahalexander

      Ruth, yes I agree with you. I don’t understand how their actions can be defended from either a pro-life or a pro-abortion point of view.

  • Hate_every_4th_year

    You are mis-applying the rule of double effect in this case – it is far more restrictive. I do not mean to sound snarky, I am pro-life (ALL life not just the unborn innocents) but this is why I fear broadly written personhood laws.
    According to various briefs/opinion pieces on the Priests for Life website, induction (for ANY reason) prior to viability = murder, unless it is proven that the unborn is the direct source of the mother’s. So, even according to Catholic teaching – in this case induction would have been immoral and possibly a crime.

    • Hate_every_4th_year

      Oops, incomplete sentence above should read:
      “…unless it is proven that the unborn is the direct source of the mother’s imminent death.”

      • calahalexander

        Okay, but if sepsis set in because of her fully dilated cevix, then the stalled miscarriage and the baby was the direct cause of the mother’s death. The baby can’t live in that state, but that state can (and seems to have, in this case) cause the mother’s death. So the intention would have been to deliver the baby to save the life of the mother, and the death of the baby would have been an unintended consequence. I don’t know how I’m misapplying double effect there.

    • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

      You are incorrect. DIRECT abortion is never permitted under Catholic moral law. INDRECT abortion, however, is permissible under the principle of double effect, if the mother’s life is in immediate danger. The intent has to be to save the mother’s life by removing the damaged/diseased organ (fallopian tube, cancerous uterus, placenta, amniotic fluid sac) with the baby’s death being an unintended (if foreseeable) side effect of the treatment.

      See #47: http://old.usccb.org/bishops/directives.shtml

      • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

        Oops, I meant to quote #47 as well: “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.” (emphasis mine)

        • Bob

          Why are priests making medical proclamations?

          • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

            Because it’s important for medical professionals to have ethics, especially in hospitals that identify as Catholic institutions.

            Would you like to be treated by a doctor with no medical ethics whatsoever?

          • bob

            Joanna – I love and support ethical people of all faiths (and those who choose not to affiliate themselves with organized religion). You do not need to be Catholic to be ethical.

      • Hate_every_4th_year

        The key word in your link is proportionality. If the doctors were not certain her death was imminent therefore deciding that the removal of the dying unborn was NOT a proportionate response (the severity of infection was not yet recognized), then the writings from the Priests for Life and Catholic and other theological experts who make these ethical guidelines – as I only repeated them – are not incorrect. Proportionate is primary in determining the morality of the inducement/removal via c-section.

        I don’t want to argue, but due to PROPORTIONALITY in the double effect rule, this may be not cut and dry as many Catholics think. I WISH it was — this was heartbreaking and flies in the face of the Catholic dedication to preserving the lives of mothers and babies as an infection in this case could have been predicted by a 1st year medical student. It is deeply troubling.

  • Bob

    Calah, You did not comment on one of the best parts of Young Catholic Mother’s excellent post (you honed in on a perceived slight and defended yourself). What say you about this eloquent statement of truth:

    “But the bottom line is regardless of the theological and medical nuances the woman died because the “pro life” laws lead her doctors to believe thy could not help her without risking themselves. As people do in situations like this, they hoped it would just work itself out, because no one wants to have to be the one to make the courageous choice that will end his medical career and possibly result in arrest. Laws that forced the theology of a religion this woman did not even belong to into the medical decision of her doctors led to her death and were a disgusting violation of her human rights and her religious liberty.”

    • calahalexander

      Bob, please read Sam’s post that I linked to at the bottom of mine. Yes, you’re right, and so is Young Catholic Mother. The doctors’ misunderstanding of Catholic teaching is no one’s fault but the Church and it’s failure to catechize. And by extension, those who belong to her ranks. My fault. One of the reasons I posted at all was to try and clarify what we believe. As far as the Church imposing theology on the medical field…I mean, look, Ireland chooses to follow Catholic teaching. The Pope doesn’t go over there and write the Irish laws. So I don’t see the Catholic Church as enslaving the Irish medical field. They choose to write their laws that way, just as I choose to follow Church teaching. I don’t ask you to. I just explain what I believe and why I believe it.

      • Bob

        I read Sam’s post. All bluster and anger. Not helpful and makes Catholics look bad, in my view.
        Your response here makes no sense to me. You seem very thoughtful in some regards, but I’m not sure you’re looking at the big picture.
        I could go back in time and give examples of what your post makes me think… about various things priests said in Catholic school to young girls about rape and abortion and so much more… but I think we would just go in loops.
        From my years in Catholic School and travels around the world, I’ve probably seen too much. I don’t agree with abortion per se, but I do believe that women are equal to men… their lives are important. Most religions (including Catholic) and governments don’t see them as such. This is a grave and serious problem that must be overcome in our lifetime.
        Because of this, in my view, it’s best to let others be personally responsible for their actions…. and to have greater separation of church and state. And, no intervention into non-Catholic lives by Catholics. And, certainly, less government intervention into women’s personal decisions. We have free will, given to us by God. I can judge what is right for others (that would be me proposing to be equal to God and would be wrong, according to Catholic teaching) because I haven’t lived in their shoes. Until humans (women) are treated equally, it seems that giving women the freedom to choose is the more logical response. In this case, if the D&C could possibly have saved Savita, I wholeheartedly support its use.
        I go mostly with the golden rule. If it were my wife or young daughter who’d been on that hospital bed, I’d want the doctors to do what they could to save her. I have to go with the husband and Savita’s wishes in this case. They are both alive. They are humans. Savita had a right to life.

        • Bob

          To be clear – I cannot judge what is right for others….

          • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

            That’s funny… you seem to be judging a-plenty in this combox.

            If you cannot judge what is right for others, then by what grounds do you oppose rape? Or murder? Is it right for a man to rape a woman if he feels it is right for him to do so?

      • Jon

        “I mean, look, Ireland chooses to follow Catholic teaching. The Pope doesn’t go over there and write the Irish laws. So I don’t see the Catholic Church as enslaving the Irish medical field.”

        Oh, please. When politicians, in this country, choose not to impose Catholic moral teaching in civil law, they’re called evil. Congregants are advised it is grave evil to vote for them, If they happen to be Catholic, they are told they should be denied communion.

        You seem to think that the Church just does its thing, teaching its moral beliefs, and hey, if governments want to choose to enact those beliefs, so be it, and if not, whatever. But that does not comport with reality. The church is a major lobbying force in Washington (albeit fairly ineffective lately), and presumably an even more important one in Dublin. When the church pressures lawmakers into enacting its moral beliefs into civil law, it bears responsibility for the consequences of those laws on real. It can’t credibly turn around and say, “Who, us? Why, whatever did WE do?”

      • edivimo

        Totally agree with Jon. I live in Costa Rica, Catholicism is the official religion. And in the last two decades, the Public Education Ministery had tried to teach sexual education in public schools with the opposition of the Catholic Church, who succeeded stopping that initiative all that time. And here, the same excuse of “we don’t redact the laws” is used by the bishops and priests. If “you” had a majoritary influence in the way of thinking of a society, you own the ignorance in the matter you refuse to talk: in my country about sexual education, in Ireland about the principle of double effect in these circunstances.

    • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

      It was entirely possible to treat and save this woman in a manner fully compliant with Church teaching, Irish law, and pro-life ethics. Her infection should have been tested for and treated IMMEDIATELY upon her admittance to the hospital. If the treatment did not work, her labor should have been induced or a C-section performed. All of these treatments are in accordance with Church teaching, Irish law, and pro-life ethics.

      The fact that these treatments did not take place was due to medical incompetence, not abortion laws.

      • Jon

        “The fact that these treatments did not take place was due to medical incompetence, not abortion laws.”
        Change the word “not” in that sentence to “and,” and I would agree.
        It may be that it “was entirely possible to treat and save this woman in a manner fully compliant with Church teaching, Irish law, and pro-life ethics,” but doing so would require a fairly sophisticated and nuanced understanding of Irish law, Church teaching, and pro-life ethics. As it happens, unfortunately, the people who work in hospitals are medical experts, not legal experts or theologians. This is exactly why the law needs to have deference, first, for medical expertise in medical matters, not the teaching of any church.
        Of course, in this case, there is also apparent medical malpractice. But it’s a case where medical ineptitude, cowardice, and a lack of understanding of church teaching and Irish law (things doctors should not have to understand to do their job) combined, in roughly equal measure, to cause this woman’s death.

  • MK

    Calah, your post was far superior to Sam Rocha’s. He is right that there was a failure of the Church here to properly catechize, just as the Church in the United States has often failed to catechize properly on the priority of the life issues. All Catholics should remember their responsibility to learn their faith fully, but his screed at the end in which he attacks pro-lifers? That was just offensive. “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 the pro-lifers think is that unborn children shouldn’t be killed, and that their mothers shouldn’t be subjected to the physical and spiritual violence of abortion. That may not be new, but for sure and certain it’s worth hearing again and again until we as a culture have actually understood it. I’ve met hundreds of pro-lifers (including many when I was heavily involved in pro-life activities during my time at our wonderful UD), and I know of many more remotely, and the vast, VAST majority of pro-lifers speak with precisely the kind of love that one gathers Sam Rocha is advocating. They embrace the woman, they embrace the child, they care about saving innocent life and helping the woman in every way. To be sure, the pro-life movement, like every movement known to man, has a few unhelpful advocates who offer unhelpful rhetoric. But by and large (and that’s putting it mildly), the pro-life movement, the pro-lifers in the trenches counseling at abortion clinics and working at crisis pregnancy centers and homes for pregnant mothers — they speak with precisely that beautiful, whole voice that Mr. Rocha claims they lack. The pro-life movement has embraced a rhetoric and method of wholeness, in which mother and child are both embraced and cared for. The real problem with Mr. Rocha’s comments, though, is not that they are insulting and untrue in regards to pro-lifers. The real problem is that by characterizing pro-lifers as being unhelpful just as pro-choicers are unhelpful, Mr. Rocha excuses himself and us from our responsiblity, the responsibility of every Catholic, to participate in the pro-life movement and help to stop this slaughter and care for the women who suffer as a result. After all, if the pro-lifers just offer noisy and unhelpful rhetoric, we shouldn’t associate ourselves with them. Let’s wait until we come up with some perfect way of speaking. Until then, let’s excuse ourselves, gloss over our responsiblity to contribute (which is all too easy to do, as I know from my own failings). Pro-lifers are not perfect (although they are the opposite of the shrill screamers Mr. Rocha characterizes them as), and we should always seek to perfect our love, but pro-lifers are the people who are truly combating this holocaust and protecting women and children. Instead of decrying them, we should be imitating them. When Christ asks them on the last day what they did when they saw the least among us in danger, they will have an answer. I pray that I will too.

  • Gerry

    “I am not a coward, neither am I a liar, (…) THE CITATION FOR IRISH LAW, under which either the induction or C-section would be explicitly allowed, are here: [link to telegraph.co.uk]” [emphasis mine]

    It’s really hard to take you seriously when you say you are not a liar, and then two paragraphs later you lie. There is NO CITATION for Irish law in that link, nor in the link inside the Telegraph story. Can you provide it?

  • http://middleagedboy.wordpress.com/ Derek Walsh

    Unusually for me, I agree with all the Catholic theologians and anti-abortion campaigners who have commented on this case. Savita should have been given the abortion she requested. Unfortunately, the law in Ireland is unclear despite twenty years of campaign to legislate for just this sort of event, and until Wednesday of this week, all the anti-abortion campaigners were insisting that this sort of thing could never happen in Ireland. They are still insisting that no law is needed. On this matter, I , like most people in the country and the supreme court, disagree with them.

    • Mary

      Just to be clear, what they’re advocating for an an INDUCTION, that is, causing the baby to be born alive before viability, which would have resulted in the infants death, but NOT an abortion, which is the deliberate killing of the infant while still in the mother’s uterus. I think this is an important distinction that we should keep clear when having this discussion. Of course, one can argue that the result is the same (death of the infant, potential to save the mother’s life), but certainly the methods are very different — one allows for the dignity of mother and child to have a relationship, however brief, the other is a deliberate killing that defines the baby only as a threat to the mother’s life. One is acceptable under Catholic teaching, the other is not.

  • Pingback: The Other JC: Seven (not so) Quick Takes Friday (v. 51): Tavita Halappanavar, Abortion, and the Principle of Double Effect


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