“Pro-Lifers” Play Fast and Loose with the “Life of the Mother” Exemption

This morning I wrote about Savita, a woman who died because she was denied the abortion that would have saved her life. Well, I just found this and now I’m even more outraged.

AN INTERNATIONAL symposium on maternal healthcare in Dublin at the weekend has concluded that abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a mother.

Eamon O’Dwyer, professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynaecology at NUI Galway and a conference organiser, said its outcome would provide “clarity and confirmation” to doctors and legislators dealing with these issues.

NUI Galway is the medical school attached to the hospital where Savita died. Eamon O’Dwyer is a professor there. He also organized a symposium on maternal health in Ireland in September. Here is what the symposium concluded:

“As experienced practitioners and researchers in obstetrics and gynaecology, we affirm that direct abortion is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman.

“We uphold that there is a fundamental difference between abortion and necessary medical treatments that are carried out to save the life of the mother, even if such treatment results in the loss of life of her unborn child.

“We confirm that the prohibition of abortion does not affect, in any way, the availability of optimal care to pregnant women.”

Some have responded to Savita’s death by pointing out that the doctors were acting contrary to Ireland’s Supreme Court decision allowing abortion to save a mother’s life, and that this is simply an individual act of malpractice. I’m highly skeptical of that line of reasoning, and the above article outlines why. A prominent professor at the medical school attached to the hospital where Savita died recently held a conference that concluded that an abortion is never necessary to save the life of a mother. I can’t imagine how this would not be in the mind of the doctors treating Savita.

While the symposium was not actually sponsored by a pro-life group, the Irish Times article does state that “many of the organisers have been involved in anti-abortion events in the past.” Well color me surprised.

I am reminded of a recent statement by Republican congressman Joe Walsh:

A Republican congressman has said that abortions should not be allowed even when the mother’s life is at risk because of advances in “modern technology and science”.

Joe Walsh of Illinois told reporters on Thursday that “you can’t find one instance” where it has been necessary to perform an abortion due to the risk to the mother’s life, citing medical advances.

As long as there are politicians, and, apparently, pro-life doctors, who believe that there is no need for a life of the mother exemption, pregnant women with complications will be at risk of experiencing Savita’s fate. Wondering how common these ideas were, I went digging around a bit. I ended up on the website of the Association of Pro-Life Physicians and read this:

We find it extremely unfortunate that many pro-lifers have regarded the health of the mother to be a consideration in whether or not she should have the right to terminate the life of her pre-born baby.  Politicians who herald the title “pro-life” on the campaign trail frequently tout this health exception, as well as exceptions for rape and incest, as pragmatic compromises that will not offend political moderates and not alienate the pro-life community.  We do not consider this compromise consistent with pro-life Hippocratic principles at all.  To intentionally kill or condone the intentional killing of one innocent human being precludes one from being considered “pro-life” at all.  A murderer of one person is not any less a murderer if he allows thousands to live, nor if he saves thousands from dying!

When the life of the mother is truly threatened by her pregnancy, if both lives cannot simultaneously be saved, then saving the mother’s life must be the primary aim.  If through our careful treatment of the mother’s illness the pre-born patient inadvertently dies or is injured, this is tragic and, if unintentional, is not unethical and is consistent with the pro-life ethic.  But the intentional killing of an unborn baby by abortion is never necessary.

And then there is this statement:

We have the technology and expertise to provide quality healthcare to a pregnant woman without intentionally killing her unborn baby, regardless of the severity of her disease.

I didn’t find anything addressing the “life of the mother” exemption on the website of the National Right to Life, but I did find two things on the website of Physicians for Life: First a statement that “improving medical technology has all but eliminated the “need” for abortion, even if the mother’s physical health is endangered”; and second, the highly lauditory story of a pregnant woman with cancer who chose to forgo treatment in order to carry to term and then died, leaving her husband with a newborn (this story reminded me of the story of Gianna Beretta Molla, the patron saint of the pro-life movement, who also chose to forgo treatment during pregnancy and also died leaving her husband with a newborn, along with three other children, and was declared a saint as a result).

There are two things going on here, I think, two reasons that some in the pro-life community refuse to make an exemption for the life of the mother. First, some believe that an abortion is never medically necessary to save a woman’s life. Second, some believe that even when it is medically necessary, it’s still wrong, because it’s “the intentional taking of a life” while letting the woman die would not be the “intentional” taking of a life (for more on the Catholic doctrine of “double effect,” see this post, and for how it applies to Savita’s case, click here). The first of these positions is quite simply wrong, and I find the second morally horrifying.

But surely things can’t be all that bad, right? I mean, surely these pro-life politicians and doctors will see from cases like Savita’s that they are wrong, and that abortion sometimes is still necessary to save a woman’s life, right? And surely when they look into the face of a woman like Gianna, they will realize that if the woman’s life can be saved, doctors should do everything possible to do so, right?

Or, you know, maybe not. I did a search of the prominent U.S. website LifeSiteNews.Com for the name “Savita” and I found nothing. I did a search of LifeNews.Com, and I found a single article: “Lack of Abortion Didn’t Kill Woman, Pro-Life Groups Say.”

A Catholic hospital stands accused of being responsible for the death of a pregnant woman and pro-abortion activists say its refusal to allow her to have an abortion to save her life cost her her life.

But two leading Irish pro-life groups say that is not the case.

I don’t think anyone is learning anything. The only thing more tragic than that is Savita’s death itself.

Note: Savita, whose death you can read about here, is not the first woman to die after being denied a medically necessary abortion. There was also a sixteen-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic last summer whose pregnancy prevented her from being treated for leukemia. The government refused to lift its abortion ban to allow her to have an abortion so that she could be treated. She died before she even made it to her second trimester, and her fetus, needless to say, was lost as well. If you have links to additional deaths, feel free to post them in a comment and I’ll add them here. 

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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