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.

  • Lena

    I’m so confused because I feel like there are a lot of medical details that we don’t know. I know abortion is wrong. I know sometimes one has to deliver the baby earlier to try to save both. Did the baby cause sepsis? It’s certainly a sad story all the way around. Did she pick up sepsis from just being in the hospital with a lot of germs? I don’t know. I’m not a doctor, and don’t have the nitty gritty details of the case.

  • Ailina

    Do we know the details of what actually happened? Usually when a miscarriage starts, the doctors let nature take it’s course because it usually works. Even when some amniotic fluid is lost, there is a chance that the pregnancy can recover and the fluids will replenish and the pains of labor will stop.

    It isn’t likely that she had septecemia at the start of her miscarriage, but perhaps acquired it after all that poking and prodding that was done. Vaginal ultrasounds are usually done when a miscarriage is taking place; there is probably a risk of infection when that procedure is done.

    Even when I had my missed miscarriage, I was sent home to let nature proceed since I wasn’t hemorrhaging. I think doctors take a wait and see stance when miscarriage is occurring.

  • LindaF

    Perhaps I’m too suspicious, but I do question this account. In too many cases of political causes, the truth of incidents is – well, “shaded” is a mild word for what, in fact, is too often a deliberate twisting of the facts to advance a political agenda. I would have to see the actual medical record before I would believe this account in full.

    Yes, she was pregnant, and in extremis. Yes, the delivery should have been induced, IF the facts as stated are true.

    Did the Catholic advisors actually say what is claimed? POSSIBLY. More likely, there was some miscommunication, either between advisor and medical people, or between doctors and patient.

    I want an in-depth, complete report before I pontificate on this.

  • Explicit Atheist

    American Catholics are usually more liberal on social issues than the Vatican, and they may not always be fully aware just how illiberal the Vatican is, but US Bishops know bettr. n its 2009 “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services”, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) unequivocally teaches:

    “45. Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion…”

  • Nirvani

    If they were looking for some kind of miracle for the baby, did it not even dawn on them that modern medical technology is in itself the miracle. They had it within their hands to save the life of a woman who would likely have died in earlier times out of medical ignorance, but there was no excuse in this. A medical miracle could have been performed to preserve her life with God-given medical talent. I wonder if they feel any accountability before their God for the death of a young woman who could have lived on and birthed future generations of children. I will not blame the Catholic church for this. I blame those doctors who are absolutely culpable for this. I don’t think the church was consulted in how this was to be handled. This is medical malpractice plain and simple.

  • Siobhan

    From what I gather, the doctors were not refusing due to their Catholic teachings, but because the law was unclear about whether their actions would be considered abortion. The legal standard is fetal heartbeat. With a fetal heartbeat present, a D&C or other action could be legally considered an abortion. And the doctors and hospitals would have been legally liable – perhaps even jail time.

    This tragedy was not caused by bad theology, but by bad law. Law is a very blunt and imprecise instrument for complex medical and ethical situations, which is a danger of making what is a medical procedure illegal.

  • Fortuna Veritas

    Unless you live in Ireland, it’s a pretty damn big assumption.

  • Louise

    Calah, I could be incorrect here, but based on my understanding of moral theology and what has been written about this particular case, an induction would count as a direct abortion, and thus would be inherently immoral. So in fact, the doctors were correct to refuse it, in this case. As I understand it, induction before the point of viability can only cause the death of the child, and so whatever the intentions may have been, the action itself was morally wrong. It is not like the removal of a fallopian tube or the uterus because in those cases, the organ is being removed with the side effect of the child dying (i.e. principle of double effect) but in this case, only the child would have been removed which is direct abortion. It is a very sad case and it’s unfortunate that the circumstances occurred, but I believe that the doctors were correct, it would have constituted abortion and is a mortal sin.

    Hope that clarifies somewhat…

    • Monimonika

      I agree with you, Louise. You mentioned it, but in the case of ectopic pregnancies I have only come across three Catholic ways it can be dealt with.

      1) Wait for the fetal heartbeat to stop (never a second earlier!).
      2) Fetus bursts fallopian tube. Pretty sure this goes along with #1 in very short time.
      3) Remove the entire fallopian tube as a “diseased organ”. (Double Effect, so #1 and #2 are trumped.)

      In Savita’s case, it’s obvious that there was no “diseased” organ that could safely be removed that “just happened” to have the pwecious baby inside (unless uterus+vagina removal is somehow survivable in that situation). And the life of the mother exception is COMPLETELY trumped by the fetal heartbeat unless Double Effect can be applied.

      To those who say otherwise, please explain the reasons why an ectopic pregnancy has to be handled according to these restrictions, but the same restrictions somehow were not supposed to apply to Savita’s miscarriage? All I see is a referral to Double Effect, but then the removing of the fallopian tube for ectopic pregnancies would MAKE NO SENSE AT ALL.

  • bob

    JoAnna says:
    “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?”

    Your tenor comes off as shrill, JoAnna. As a devout, Catholic woman, I am sure you do not intend that, so you may want to reflect a bit before you hit send… or, perhaps, pray.

    To answer your question, you must first go back and read the stories of Genesis… specifically, Adam and Eve. This is where Catholics first learn that is sinful to be Godlike. Then, consider the Lord’s Prayer… specifically, “… as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

    Finally, think on the Golden Rule… and remember to “love they neighbor as yourself.”

    This should lead you to the answer yourself. If you still don’t understand, write back and I would be happy to explain further.

  • bob

    JoAnna, In response to your other question, by advocating that Savita (a human being) suffer painfully for 3 days while her baby (in her case, a non-viable fetus) was miscarrying, one is essentially turning a blind eye to her torture and subesequent death.

    I’ve asked Calah, who hasn’t answered me, why she believes it is wrong to terminate a non-viable pregancy, but not medically intervene for Savita’s life and prevent her suffereing and death.

    The stance is confusing to me…. because as I said, there is no dispute or doubt that Savita was a human being. We are 100% clear on the matter.