“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.

  • Steve

    I hope Galway has other hospitals pregnant women can go to. That seems like a house of horrors

  • lucrezaborgia

    There are cases of pregnant women dying because doctors viewed the fetus as more important than the woman. Women denied cancer treatment or other treatments that can cause abortion or malformations. I can’t find it on my mobile, but there was a case of a woman who had survived cancer and then conceived. During the pregnancy she had a resurgance of cancer and was denied treatment becaus e the fetus was more important than her. Other women have been charged with murder or neglect for refusing medical treatment and then miscarrying.

    • lucrezaborgia

      Anyone wanna help me here? It was a very specific case. Woman ended up having her limbs amputaued from infection and or cancer. Stated she wanted an abortion. Doctors overruled her because they thought they could save the baby and thought the woman was as good as dead.

      • lilac

        Angela Carder springs to mind, who was denied an abortion and forced to have a c-section before being treated for her cancer. They both died.


      • lucrezaborgia

        Thanks! That was exactly who I was thinking of. Why did I think she was an amputee???

      • lilac

        It looks like she had her left leg and hip removed as a result of a prior battle with cancer. Still Googling to see if she suffered any further amputations due to lack of treatment.

      • Steve

        According to that wiki article on the case she had Ewing’s sarcoma, which is a type of bone cancer, so the amputations make perfect sense. But it seems she died pretty quickly after being hospitalized.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

        She might have died anyways. That doesn’t negate the fact that the doctors wrote her off as dead and forced her to undergo a surgery that she did not want and that had next to no chance of being successful. They refused to see her as the patient and instead treated her as an incubator and it happens to pregnant women all the time!

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia


        THE COURT: Will you bring us up to date? Did you have a conversation with [A.C.]?

        DR. WEINGOLD: I did not. I observed the conversation between Dr. Hamner and [A.C.]. Dr. Hamner went into the room to attempt to verify his previous discussion with the patient, with the patient’s husband at her right hand and her mother at her left hand. He, to my satisfaction, clearly communicated with [A.C.]. She [**15] understood.

        THE COURT: You could hear what the parties were saying to one another?

        [*1241] DR. WEINGOLD: She does not make sound because of the tube in her windpipe. She nods and she mouths words. One can see what she’s saying rather readily. She asked whether she would survive the operation. She asked [Dr.] Hamner if he would perform the operation. He told her he would only perform it if she authorized it but it would be done in any case. She understood that. She then seemed to pause for a few moments and then very clearly mouthed words several times, I don’t want it done. I don’t want it done. Quite clear to me.

      • Steve

        Yeah, how they treated her was horrific. Those “doctors” were monsters. It’s almost unbelievable that something like that could happen. I can understand them counseling her against further therapy because of her low survival chances, but they immediately override all of her wishes and effectively enslaved her.

        But asking “if she suffered any further amputations due to lack of treatment.” doesn’t make much sense. Those earlier amputations *were* the treatment.

      • lilac

        @Steve: the amputations were from the second time she had cancer, and were part of the treatment of that cancer. During her pregnancy, she received her third separate diagnosis of cancer. If further amputations were required while she was pregnant, they likely would have been due to the unchecked spread of her cancer due to lack of treatment at that time.

  • Twist

    So what reason are the forced birthers giving for Savita’s death, if it wasn’t due to the refusal of the doctors to give her an abortion? Did she just not pray hard enough?

    I mean, if a doctor refused to give chemo to a patient who had a cancer that was known to be curable with chemo, would the forced birthers think that the doctor wasn’t at least partially responsible for the death of the patient? Or does it only apply when the patient is a pregnant woman?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      You can click on the link to read more lengthy statements by each group. They’re full of fluff words about life and family and women, so it can be difficult to boil down to what they’re actually saying. It appears that they’re saying that since the Supreme Court said abortion has to be allowed in the case of the life of the mother, it couldn’t have been having an abortion withheld that killed Savita. Which is sort of like saying “I couldn’t have been going 70 miles an hour, officer! That sign says the speed limit is 60 miles an hour!”

      • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Amelia

        Thats some pretty twisted logic right there – but no less than we expect really, given some of the stuff we have seen in your recent pro-choice posts.

  • Sgaile-beairt

    twist, the most common claim i’m seeing is that the infection was somehow totally unrelated to the miscarriage & she wld have died anyway…..these people know JACK about obstetrics, not even what you get from reading James Herriot books!!

  • Sgaile-beairt

    also, Nicaragua & el Salvador are so “pro life” now that they actually DO wait til the tube bursts for ectopic pregnancies….it was in the news a couple years ago, google either country & fallopian tube & have a barf bag handy…

    • The_L

      Doesn’t that pretty much render the pregnancy automatically fatal for the mother? After all, the whole point of aborting an ectopic pregnancy is so that the fallopian tube doesn’t burst and cause all sorts of nasty, potentially fatal infections…

  • Sgaile-beairt

    btw MORE protests are being set up for the wkend as a lot who wanted to attend cld not get work off at such short notice….

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I’ll be there this weekend! This happened less than a mile from where I currently live.

  • jemand

    It’s hard to say what I *would* have done in such a situation because I don’t know all the details and I don’t really know how I would react… But I *think* if that were me I would have started hunting for metal hangers or throwing myself down a flight of stairs or drinking bleach or something.

    But that probably would just have gotten me committed to a psych ward before dying of the infection. Or I’d bleed out from self-inflicted wounds a day or so before it would have gotten me and been written down in the paperwork as a suicide rather than dead from denied abortion— which makes me wonder, has *that* ever happened? It would never be reported in the same channels, if so…

  • lilac

    Edyta, a Polish woman, was denied treatment for a colon condition due to pregnancy. She does not appear to have been offered an abortion. Edyta later miscarried and died. (The teenager in Poland who had to travel 300 miles for her abortion is a separate case.)


  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    A nine year old girl was raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, and because of her young age and size it would be life-threatening for her to carry a babies to term and give birth. Thankfully this little girl had a life-saving abortion, but the Catholic Church excommunicated her, her mother, and the doctor who performed the life-saving procedure. If the Pro-Life community in Brazil had its way, she would likely have died.


    I came across this article in 2010, after learning about the Arizona nun who was excommunicated for authorizing a life-saving abortion on a woman at a Catholic hospital. As you said in the previous post, this could happen in the US, and were it not for this brave nun, it would have happened in 2010. These two stories really opened my eyes to the fact that there were instances where Double Effect simply didn’t provide an “out” for Catholics, and that in these cases, the Catholic Church always put the life of the fetus above the life of the mother, with disturbing consequences:


    • The_L

      It still baffles me that the girl, her mother, and the doctor who performed the abortion were all excommunicated, but not the stepfather who raped a 9-year-old girl and got her pregnant in the first place. What the hell, Catholic Church?

  • Doe

    The second paragraph from the Association of Pro-Life Physicians website sounds like the principle of double effect in action. Double effect exemptions make me crazy because instead of being able to perform the abortion when the mother is relatively stable, you have to wait until mom is on death’s door and then you can do what’s necessary to save the mom and say that the death of the embryo/fetus was a result of saving the mom therefore it’s not eeeeevil.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

    Same professor in 2000!!!

    ” Professor Eamon O’Dwyer, Professor Emeritus of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, National University of Ireland, Galway said in his written submission to the committee:

    After forty years as a consultant obstetrician gynaecologist I can state:

    there is no conflict of interest between the mother and her unborn child

    there are no medical indications for abortion

    there is no risk to the mother that can be avoided by abortion

    prohibition of deliberate intentional abortion will not effect, in any way, the availability of all necessary care for the pregnant woman.

    There is therefore a fundamental difference between abortion procured with intent to abort, for social reasons for example, ‘… deliberate, intentional destruction of unborn life’ … and destruction of unborn life incidental to requisite medical treatment which is lawful and ethical, however distressing.”

  • lilac

    Delma Rosa Gómez López, better known as Amalia, was a 26-year-old mother who had the misfortune to be living in Nicaragua when she was diagnosed with cancer almost simultaneously with discovering she was pregnant. Doctors initially withheld treatment for fear of affecting the fetus, until an international effort brought attention to her case. Her cancer had by then metastasized and led to her death.

    http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/nacionales/236529 (in Spanish: having trouble finding an English-language website that cared enough to follow up on her)

  • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia


    “Martha Solay spent Mother’s Day in pain, knowing her life would soon be over. As her eldest daughter Yenny injected her with painkillers, she coiled into a fetal position, cupped her face in her hands and screamed. Daniela, her two-year-old daughter, stood at the bedside with a curious look, shifting her attention between the crying and the Tarzan cartoons on television. She was too young to understand that her own abortion might have saved her mother’s life.

    Three years earlier, when Martha was two months pregnant with Daniela, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Doctors in her home city of Pereira withheld radiation treatment that could have cured her because it would have terminated the fetus, a procedure that was illegal, with no exceptions. Martha was forced to wait out the pregnancy, giving her cancer time to become terminal.”

  • lilac

    A thirteen-year-old girl in Peru jumped out of a window when the much older man who’d raped and impregnated her refused to acknowledge that he was the cause of the pregnancy. While she survived her fall, she’s now wheelchair-bound; doctors at her local hospital refused to operate on her to treat her injuries because she was pregnant, but also refused her the abortion that would allow them to treat her.


  • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

    Olga Reyes


    “Reyes, a 22-year-old law student, suffered an ectopic pregnancy. The fetus develops outside the uterus, cannot survive and causes bleeding that endangers the mother. But doctors seemed afraid to treat her because of the anti-abortion law, said husband Agustin Perez. By the time they took action, it was too late.”

  • Sgaile-beairt

    oh but the prolifers assure us that no Catholic hospital ever lets the ectopic pregnanices just burst.!!

  • Anat

    I also recommend Jen Gunter’s medical analysis: Did Irish Catholic law or malpractice kill Savita Halappanavar?

    She gives the breakdown of all possible scenarios for a threatened miscarriage at 17 weeks.

    • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Amelia

      Thanks Anat – thats a good read. I note the added conclusion at the bottom – ” I learned that Ms. Halappanavar’s widower reported that she was leaking amniotic fluid and was fully dilated when first evaluated. There is no medically defensible position for doing anything other than optimal pain control and hastening delivery by the safest means possible”
      That makes this even more abhorrent. If that is possible.

  • mary

    Ok, guys- I really don’t think all this idiocy is indicative of mainstream “pro-life” americans. I consider myself pro life, because I do believe that any abortion does end the life of a child. I am also passionately opposed to any woman’s being forced to continue a pregnancy that would risk her health or life or where the fetus is too disabled to survive outside the womb with any quality of life. The above examples make my blood boil, and frankly, I’d love to see the doctors whose withholding care costs those women their lives charged with murder. While I believe that abortion does end a life, at times it is the best or kindest option and the option that saves another life. I cannot believe I’m the only pro-life person who feels this way- for example, look at the following on Fox News about Savita’s story- I think we can all agree that FN is not exactly a bastion of liberalism. =)


    Also, I hardly think I’m the only person who believes that free contraception would be better than abortion legislation and that christian non-profits should be providing free contraception instead of trying to convince everyone how evil premarital sex is. =)

    • Rosa

      You’re not the only one who disagrees, thankfully, but this position is pretty mainstream – you can see it not only the rash of idiotic “pro-life” statements from Republican elected and campaigning officials this year, but remember McCain’s using air quotes around “health of the mother” when he talked about exceptions to abortion bans?

    • Steve

      You’re a rare exception. There are also “pro-life” idiots on Irish websites spouting their BS and claiming that she didn’t really need an abortion.

    • lucrezaborgia

      I shared the story on a forum and neither one of them see issue with the school espousing the view that abortion is never necessary

    • http://mymusingcorner.wordpress.com Lana

      I agree with you too. I am prolife, but I am totally against this. In fact, I believe its up to the mother whether or not to end her pregnancy when she is going to die. But in his case, the baby would have died anyway. it was a nobrainer.

    • Karen

      Do you believe in legislating restrictions on abortion? If not, then your position is defensible.

    • Anat

      If it weren’t for the public outrage, the doctors in this case would probably be able to cover their asses with the claim that the exception allowing abortion when the woman’s life is in danger did not apply initially, because the danger did not become imminent until sepsis actually set in. For another example, see When a politician decides if the life of the mother is at risk. A situation where abortion is illegal with exceptions for the life of the mother does not provide sufficient protection for women’s lives.

  • lucrezaborgia
  • http://mymusingcorner.wordpress.com Lana

    Its sad that for Christian pro-life people its more important for them to live the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. break your own rules, people. sad story.

  • Evs

    Another extremely sad thing is that there was absolutely no scenario in which the baby would have survived. Even if it was actually born then still alive, the same doctors that were so concerned with its heartbeat would have done NOTHING to save the already-born baby’s life. Why? Because majority of hospitals have a non-resuscitation policy for babies born under certain gestational age (23-24ish weeks). The baby would have just been left to die once it was born anyway.

  • Saraquill

    Two deaths, especially where one is preventable, is NOT better than one.

  • Sgaile-beairt

    and Evs that’s bc fetal development is such that under that age the lungs are incomplete & wont work.,”like inflating a rock” is how i’ve heard trying to resusitate them from NICU staff…..so no, no potential for “life” at all…

    • Evs

      I’m not saying they should necessarily resuscitate a 17-weeker, I meant that they can’t even use “oh we thought maybe baby will survive” excuse. It is such a sad and pointless death of a woman who was denied proper care when she needed it most.

      • Sgaile-beairt

        i understand….i’m just pointing out that ‘resucitate” isnt even an option at that stage in case some ppl think they are making a choice, consistent, or inconsistent, to NOT do it….resus only works when you have lungs….

  • Sgaile-beairt

    bringing it full circle, O’Dwyer is one of the symphsiotomy guys who claimed that women were just faking claims of disability afterwards….

    • Rosa

      I had never heard of symphsiotomy before today. It’s horrific. i hope they get the law changed and then sue the shit out of all those doctors.

  • Michael Busch

    The number of women who die from not receiving a medically-necessary abortions is too high to cover every case individually. World Health Organization data as indexed by Wikipedia inform me the number of maternal deaths is >500,000 per year. Perhaps 10% of those could be prevented by abortions that would be medically indicated, based on the death rate from ectopic pregnancies (a somewhat larger percentage could be prevented by providing women with safe abortions in the event of elective termination, but that is a different discussion). That’s 50,000 bodies on the deck every year.

    Most of those are due to lack of access to medical care, but ~1% are in regions where medical care should be available. Not all cases will be due to doctors refusing to provide treatment; some will be due to the patient refusing care or not seeking it early enough. But there have still been hundreds of cases like Savita Halappanavar in the last decade.

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    This whole story makes me feel upset and utterly sick. Clearly the baby didn’t stand a chance in this case. Why delay the inevitable and cause EVERYONE to suffer for it? Or is inaction not a cause of anything? Now there’s two dead instead of one. How could anyone believe that’s really what God wanted? Unless God is a total asshole.

    • Michael Busch

      Your feelings are entirely appropriate.

      But it was a _fetus_, not a baby. 17 weeks in, the lungs haven’t grown yet, and the fetus is four or five weeks from the point when there would be any possibility of viability.