The Savita Inquest Concludes

Last month, the official inquest into the death of Savita Halappanavar concluded. In a tragic irony, the jury delivered its verdict on the very date that would have been her fifth wedding anniversary.

In my last post, I pessimistically predicted that the final report would take the anti-choice position that abortion should be forbidden until the woman is clearly dying and then blaming the doctors if they can’t pull her back from the brink. To my surprise, that isn’t what happened. Instead, after less than three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of “medical misadventure” that strongly endorsed all nine recommendations by the coroner, including that Irish law should clearly specify exactly when abortion is permitted to save the woman’s life. (They were doubtless influenced by searing testimony from obstetrician Dr. Peter Boylan, who said it was “highly likely” that Savita wouldn’t have died if she had obtained an abortion in time.)

In response to the inquest, after twenty-plus years of foot-dragging and delay, Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s government has finally introduced a bill clarifying when abortion is legal. This is, at most, an extremely tiny and hesitant step forward: it applies only in cases of risk to the woman’s life, and as written, it doesn’t even address rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality. Even if it’s passed, the vast majority of Irish women seeking abortion will still have to travel to the U.K., as they’ve been doing for decades.

And yet, even this incredibly narrow and tightly circumscribed expansion of reproductive choice in Ireland has faced bitter opposition from anti-choicers, including legislators from Kenny’s own party, whose open disdain for women’s lives is breathtaking. As the A.P. article says:

Anti-abortion activists, including many in Kenny’s own Fine Gael party, protest that the proposed law could become a platform for eventual wider access to abortion in Ireland…. Activists particularly oppose the bill’s provisions for women who threaten to kill themselves if they are denied a termination.

These opponents, all religious conservatives, see a slippery slope in any expansion of women’s rights, even one limited to interventions that are strictly and undeniably necessary to save a woman’s life. Like many anti-choicers, they’d rather see both the woman and the fetus die than to intervene and save the only life that can be saved in that situation.

And if you had any remaining doubt that the Roman Catholic church wants abortion banned even when it’s essential to save the woman’s life, this article should lay those doubts to rest:

The Catholic Church in Ireland on Friday condemned the government’s abortion legislation, which would permit abortions in cases where a threat existed to a woman’s life, including from suicide. The church called the legislation “a dramatically and morally unacceptable change to Irish law.”

…After the statement was issued, Cardinal Sean Brady told RTE, the national broadcaster, that the bishops believed the legislation was a denial of religious freedom.

…In February, Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis and the head of the Vatican court, urged priests to withdraw communion from politicians who supported abortion legislation in Ireland. He told The Catholic Voice newspaper that the legalization of abortion in Ireland would create a “culture of death.”

Legislation to save lives creates a culture of death, and respecting Catholic religious freedom means forcing pregnant women to die. This is the apotheosis of evil absurdity. As long as these viewpoints command respect, there will be more Savitas, and I’m not just saying that: right now in El Salvador, another pregnant woman’s life hangs in the balance. Beatriz (first name only) is 22 years old and five months pregnant, and her fetus is anencephalic – lacking a brain – and will never be viable. She’s suffering from a life-threatening autoimmune condition which her pregnancy is worsening, and her doctors say that termination is necessary to treat it. But El Salvador is another country where Roman Catholic doctrines prohibiting abortion in all cases hold sway, and the courts continue to stall while her life hangs in the balance.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Mick

    “an extremely tiny and hesitant step forward”

    Give them a few more hundred years; they’ll get there eventually.

  • Obliged_Cornball

    The Principle of Double Effect, ladies and gentlemen.

  • Kellen Conner

    Shhhh, listen…. that’s the sound of my last ties to the RCC snapping and turning to dust. Honestly. This is disgusting and immoral.

  • GCT

    Not following you here. The RCC seems to be explicitly denying Double Effect. Even though they’ve paid lip service to it in the past, they are directly stating now that they don’t give a damn about Double Effect. No abortions, under any circumstances is their stance.

    From Wiki:

    The principle of double effect is frequently cited in cases of pregnancy and abortion. A doctor who believes abortion is always morally wrong may still remove the uterus or fallopian tubes of a pregnant woman, knowing the procedure will cause the death of the embryo or fetus, in cases in which the woman is certain to die without the procedure (examples cited include aggressive uterine cancer and ectopic pregnancy). In these cases, the intended effect is to save the woman’s life, not to terminate the pregnancy, and the effect of not performing the procedure would result in the greater evil of the death of both the mother and the fetus.

    Although some commenter have tried to defend the RCC with this in the past, Adam has pointed out that it’s simply not true.

  • watchemoket

    >>In February, Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, the former archbishop of St.
    Louis and the head of the Vatican court, urged priests to withdraw
    communion from politicians who supported abortion legislation in
    Ireland. He told The Catholic Voice newspaper that the legalization of
    abortion in Ireland would create a “culture of death.”<<
    Right – like forcing a fatal pregnancy to go to its predictably fatal conclusion is promoting a 'culture of life' instead.

  • Obliged_Cornball

    I thought that it was part of their rationale for saying there had to be a >50% chance of death before they could induce delivery? So that the “unintended” effect of terminating one life could outweigh the probability of terminating two. Otherwise, the good effect would fail to be desirable enough to compensate for the bad.

    Of course, a staunchly pro-life person could reach the same conclusion using strictly utilitarian logic as well, so you’re probably right about their stance change anyway. I’m more than happy to see Double Effect done away with altogether, but they seem to have replaced it with something much worse.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I’m Catholic. I’m anti-choice. I support Personhood for the Unborn. But heartbeat legislation is the *wrong solution* that leads to more evil. And triage isn’t a free choice. A doctor in that situation has two patients and a positive moral duty to save the one he can. Sometimes that’s the mother, sometimes that is the child, sometimes it is both, and sometimes it requires a cesarean to even properly diagnose the problem.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    By that logic, the removal of an unwanted fetus is a good action because its beneficial to the host, so wouldn’t it remain a good action even though it has the secondary effect of killing the fetus?

  • Michael

    No one weaves tangled webs of moral logic better than Catholic philosophers. It was notorious in the Reformation period, such as when some justified knowingly saying a misleading statement, or more blatantly, said one thing, but thought another, since telling the truth was owed to God only. Ah, how clever…

  • Michael

    Yes, it only took them around 360 years to admit what happened with Galileo might have been wrong…

  • Azkyroth

    I support Personhood for the Unborn.

    A born person doesn’t have the right to use another person’s body without their consent. If you cant’ force someone to donate a kidney, you can’t force them to donate a uterus.

    The only reason anyone even CONSIDERS applying a different standard in this case is internalized hatred of women. Is that who you want to be?

  • Azkyroth

    …I admit I wondered briefly whether Ireland had oil after reading this.

  • Azkyroth

    I don’t think “moral” is the word you want.

  • Obliged_Cornball

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • Sven2547

    But you’ve contradicted yourself.
    You said”…the motives of the person acting, however good, do not suffice to turn an evil act into a good one.”

    So when you kill a living embryo (an evil act, according to the RCC) by removing part of the Fallopean Tube (a “neutral” act), when why don’t you consider it evil?

  • Tepintzin Huehueocelotl

    Double effect means that the intent is everything. Remember those Maltese conjoined twins in England about 12 years back? When the hospital separated them, the *intent* was to save the stronger twin’s life. They put the weaker twin on a heart-lung machine even though it would clearly not work. The doctors could have justified terminating Savita’s pregnancy (the intent would have been to save her, since the fetus was dying anyway), they just didn’t. After all, Karen Santorum had an abortion under those same conditions. Oops, did I say that out loud?

  • GCT

    Right, but the point is that the RCC doesn’t even go as far as double effect. They would rather see the woman die than have anything approaching abortion happen.

  • Sarah

    Exactly! Which is why when my baby tried to use my body for milk I left him in the back garden until he stopped crying.

    And the law supported me.

    Oh, wait. No a born person does have the right to use another person’s body against their right. You can force people to care for their babies. I guess you’re wrong.

    The only reason you even CONSIDER this as a case of internalised hatred of women is because that’s your answer for everything and you’re a Man who likes to tell women that *he* really knows what’s up about women’s lives and the law.

    And you can’t even get the law right – which you could look up – where did you look up your ‘insight’ into women?

  • GCT

    Actually, by bringing a child into the world, you gave implicit consent to care for that child or to give it up to the state or another entity that would care for it.

    And, yes, forced pregnancy does come from an internalized hatred of women.

  • Michael

    Moral in their minds at least-not ours.

  • DavidMHart

    Actually, that analogy doesn’t work, because you can bottle-feed a baby with some sort of milk-replacement formula – and you would be within your legal rights to refuse to breast-feed your baby, so long as you fed it by some other means, or gave it up for adoption by someone who was willing and able to do so. Feeding a baby from a bottle is not ‘using someone’s body’ in anything like the sense that gestating a foetus is. And, while I will never be able to speak from personal experience on this one, I would expect that even if being forced to breast-feed a baby did actually happen, which would indeed be forcing the use of someone’s body, it would still be a lot less invasive than forced pregnancy and birth.

    But we don’t yet have artificial uterus technology that will gestate a foetus without using a woman’s body. Perhaps once we do, all of this debate will die down. But perhaps we will still be presented with armies of religious conservatives saying that women should be denied the right to choose artificial gestation. We’ll see.

  • Ohtobide

    Sarah, where are you posting from? Is it really illegal in your country for a woman not to breastfeed? Or have I misunderstood you?
    At any rate, in my country (England) and in every other country I know about, it is legal not to breastfeed and indeed it is legal to abandon a baby and not care for it at all.
    Of course you must abandon it to the care of others. You cannot leave it in the back garden to die but then you could not leave any helpless born person to die, not even a stranger. We all have a duty of reasonable care to each other. But that duty does not extend to the forced use of someone else’s body. At least it does not in England.

  • Ohtobide

    The theology behind the P of DE is pretty complicated as you can imagine and please bear in mind that I am not a Catholic theologian or even a Catholic at all. But here are the conditions given by the New Catholic Encyclopedia, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.

    2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.

    3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.

    4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.”

    In the case of removing a Fallopian tube you are not considered to be directly killing an embryo, you are removing a diseased tube. The death of the embryo is a “regretted but unavoidable consequence.”

    According to the Catholic church, removing a Fallopian tube is allowed but simply removing the embryo and preserving the tube is not allowed. The use of methotrexate, which would normally be the preferred treatment for an early ectopic pregnancy since it avoids the danger and distress of surgery, is also not allowed because methotrexate works by killing the embryo.

  • Sarah

    Yes it does. If you refuse to move your body to feed the child, whether by bottle or breast, and the child dies, you will be charged. If you fail to use your body to move the child when it is in danger you will be charged. You can be forced to use your body to get the child adopted if you want to be relieved of these legal responsibilities and obligations, but if you fail to use your body to keep the child alive in the intervening period you will be charged.

  • GCT

    Once again, because you gave implicit consent to care for the child or give it up to some entity that will do so when you consented to bringing the child into the world.

  • Sven2547

    But that’s ridiculous. The Principle of Double Effect is nothing but a flimsy justification for what can only be described as brazen hypocrisy. I’ve never seen a clearer example of 1984-style doublethink in my life.
    Killing an embryo is evil, but facilitating its death (and hurting a woman) is okay? “War is peace!” “Ignorance is strength!”

    Rational, ethical people seek the least-harmful outcome.
    The Roman Catholic Church is either irrational, unethical, or both. This “Principle of Double Effect” simply cannot be accepted by anyone who thinks critically.

  • DavidMHart

    I note that in your reply to Ohtobide you have simply ignored my earlier point, that you are conflating two utterly different senses of ‘use someone’s body’. On the one hand we have the legal requirement to take action to keep a child alive, with the same sort of non-invasive everyday physical movements that you would use when carrying out any other task, and on the other hand we have the alleged right of a foetus to occupy someone’s internal organ, causing all sorts of unpleasant and risky physiological changes, culminating in a painful and potentially fatal exit procedure. Please don’t pretend to be unable to tell the difference.

  • Azkyroth

    First, I don’t recall stating my gender.

    Second, demonstrating that plain fucking English has no intrinsic defense against willful, bad faith misreading is not an accomplishment. We already knew that. Try again.

    Third, what’s with all the people engaging this dishonest little brat in the other responses? Folks?

  • Azkyroth

    No, because Sarah is deliberately equivocating between being obligated to either perform some action or abdicate the duty in an affirmative way that passes it on to someone who can perform it, and having your bodily integrity compromised. Try to be smarter.

  • Azkyroth

    Actually, even with your dishonest equivocation…

    If you are not willing to, or feel you cannot, have a child in your home and care, you have the right to remove it, even if it will be negatively affected. This requires visiting a professional who will perform a service (surrender/adoption/ward-of-the-state-ification) to facilitate this.

  • GCT

    True, and that’s a stronger argument than mine (wish I had thought of it). I would still contend that a free choice to have a child (note the free choice part) obligates the people involved to not simply allow the child to die from neglect. If they cannot or will not care for it, they are obligated to at least give it up to an entity that can and will. I have no problem saying that or advocating prosecution for parents who can’t follow through with this.

  • DavidMHart

    I see what you’ve done there :-)
    Are you some kind of Tlatelolcat?

  • keddaw

    Why are you throwing incest under the bus here? All negative issues are covered by rape and fetal abnormalities, so all you’re doing is heaping shame on people who are doing no wrong and causing no harm.