Savita Halappanavar: When “Pro-Life” Means Death

I am completely and totally appalled right now.

“This is a Catholic country” was what Irish doctors told Savita Halappanavar after she learned she was miscarrying her pregnancy and asked for an abortion to avoid further complications. She spent three days in agonizing pain, eventually shaking, vomiting and passing out. She again asked for an abortion and was refused, because the fetus still had a heartbeat.

Then she died.

She died of septicaemia and E.Coli. She died after three and a half days of excruciating pain. She died after repeatedly begging for an end to the pregnancy that was poisoning her. Her death would have been avoided if she had been given an abortion when she asked for it — when it was clear she was miscarrying, and that non-intervention would put her at risk. But the fetus, which had no chance of survival, still had a heartbeat. Its right to life quite literally trumped hers.’

In other words, Savita Hallappanavar was pregnant, and was miscarrying. However, the miscarriage was taking time, and was poisoning her in the process. This is the sort of thing that made pregnancy so risky before the advent of modern medicine. What she needed was for the doctors to finish the miscarriage. But Ireland is Catholic, and abortion is banned. Two decades ago, in what is now called “the X Case,” Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that abortion must be allowed if a woman’s life is in danger. However, Ireland has never amended its laws to reflect this ruling, so current laws still state that participation in an abortion is punishable with years of penal servitude and doctors err on the side of caution rather than face the legal consequences. Savita desperately needed medical care that would have saved her life, and the doctors refused. They let her die. And again, she was miscarrying. The fetus was already doomed.

Lest you think that this couldn’t happen in our country, think again.

U.S. politicians and “pro-life” advocates like Joe Walsh will tell you that there are no circumstances under which women need abortions to avoid death or injury. The Republican platform doesn’t include an exception for medically necessary abortion. And the Republican party is trying to put laws similar to those in Ireland on the books in the United States — laws that would allow emergency room doctors to refuse to perform abortions, even in cases where the pregnant woman’s life or health depends on terminating the pregnancy.

Those laws that the pro-life movement keeps putting forward to “protect doctors’ right of conscience”? Those laws would allow this sort of thing to happen. In fact, a story came out last year about a woman who almost bled to death for this very reason – she was having a miscarriage at 20 weeks and was bleeding out but the doctor on call refused finish the miscarriage, and she was only saved when another doctor was finally called in at the last minute. This happened in the U.S., and it would become the law of the land if “right of conscience” bills passed.

An Irish bishop, John Fleming, wrote the following in the Irish Times yesterday in an attempt to explain the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and Ireland’s ban on the procedure:

In fact, Ireland, without abortion, is recognised as one of the safest countries in the world to be a pregnant mother. This is something about which we should be proud and is a tribute to the excellent care provided by hospital staff who treat both mother and unborn child with equal dignity and respect as people in their own right. Clearly, if the life of the mother is threatened, by illness or some other medical condition, the care provided by medical professionals will make sure that she receives all the medical care needed.

Savita clearly didn’t find Ireland a safe place to be a pregnant mother. Fleming may tout treating “both mother and unborn child with equal dignity and respect,” but Savita’s very preventable death would indicate otherwise. Savita’s life was threatened, and the medical professionals outright denied her “the medical care needed.”

For those who view life through the lens of their Christian faith, our bodies are sacred; temples of the Holy Spirit, created in the image of God and redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Christians, our bodies are not our own to do with them what we will. Our bodies come from God, are created in God’s image and destined for eternal life with him in heaven. This is our faith and this is what distinguishes us from those who do not share our faith.

Fleming says that “for Christians, our bodies are not our own to do with what we will.” That may be Fleming’s religious belief, but he has no right to assume that others share that belief or to impose it on others. Apparently, in Fleming’s view, God wanted Savita dead. Personally, when I look at Savita I see a woman who could have been saved.

I wrote last year about how scary it often felt to be pregnant during a period when new restrictions on abortion were popping up left and right. I talked about women currently being criminalized for miscarriages and about laws allowing doctors to lie to their patients about the fetus’ medical condition if that’s what it took to keep them from having abortions. I wrote about my concern that if I were to engage in physical activity my doctor had advised against (such as bicycling) and then miscarry, I might be charged with murder or at least reckless endangerment (believe it or not, there is precedent for that sort of thing).

I also wrote about Catholic hospitals. Whenever we traveled during my pregnancy, I harbored a fear that the nearest hospital – or possibly the only hospital in the area – might be a Catholic one. I felt very sure that if I were to go into a Catholic hospital with complications or while miscarrying, the doctors there would not be thinking of my health first and foremost. And as a young woman with my whole life ahead of me, and also a wife and at the time already the mother of a toddler, this reality was frightening.

A doctor or a hospital that objects to performing an abortion regardless of the circumstances is quite literally a hazard to women’s health, as Savita’s death makes clear. You know what we can do to honor Savita’s memory and bring something good out of the tragedy of her death? We can fight those so called “right of conscience” bills tooth and nail and make her death the last.

Note: For more, see my follow-up post, “‘Pro-Lifers’ Play Fast and Lose with the ‘Life of the Mother’ Exemption.”

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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