Savita’s tragic death could have been avoided – UPDATED

Because I am very nearly burned out, to the point where yesterday I wondered if I should take a blogging moratorium, I shut down the computer rather early and missed this story as it was building.

Well, how dare I? This morning a couple of emails greeted me, all variations on this theme: “hey you &^$%$ pro-life hypocrite and your ^#$%^ church and your ^%$#$%^ Christ, why aren’t you writing about this story and see how you’ve ^$#%#%-ed-up lives and &$%#%@)*^ Ireland! %^$#@ Catholics! Justice for Savita! End &^$%# Rome!”

Around the same time, I noticed in my feed that Father Dwight Longenecker was writing about Savita Halappanavar, so clearly it was time to come up to speed with a story, and it is — make no mistake — a disturbing and tragic one.

Quite rightly an investigation is being launched into what happened and why this young woman is dead, but the facts as they stand presently are these:

1) A beautiful, vibrant 31 year-old dentist, Savita Halappanavar, at 17 weeks pregnant, began experiencing pain and symptoms that convinced her her baby was in trouble. After first being turned away, she was admitted to a Galway hospital where it was determined that she was miscarrying the child.

2) In terrible pain, Savita and her husband requested that delivery be induced.

3) Next:

“They said unfortunately she can’t because it’s a Catholic country,” Mr Halappanavar said. “Savita said to her she is not Catholic, she is Hindu, and why impose the law on her.

“But she said ‘I’m sorry, unfortunately it’s a Catholic country’ and it’s the law that they can’t abort when the foetus is live.”

4) And finally:

But she began vomiting and shivering uncontrollably on Tuesday night, more than 48 hours after she first arriving at hospital, and her baby died the following day.

After an operation to remove the dead foetus, she was taken to intensive care and died four days later on Sunday 28 October of organ failure.

A post-mortem examination found she had septicaemia, a form of blood poisoning, and an E.coli infection.

Okay, this is an awful story; it’s a tragedy and a painful read. No one likes to hear of a young couple, with a splendid future before them, going through this. But having read half-a-dozen reports, I suspect this would have ended an awful story even if Savita had been induced, because of what appears to be a case of medical negligence.

The post-mortem on Savita determined that the cause of death was “septicaemia, a form of blood poisoning, and an E.coli infection.”

I don’t know what is common to Ireland, but my personal experience with miscarriage here in the US is that when a patient is admitted, and while a course of action is being determined, a saline drip is begun and — as a standard procedure — a CBC is ordered to, among other things, take a look at white blood cell counts and see if something else is going on that might be precipitating the miscarriage. A case of E.coli could certainly threaten a pregnancy. So, before we even get to the abortion issue, there are some questions that must be answered:

1) Did Savita present with a fever, even a low-grade fever? Or did one develop while she was in hospital?

2) If so, was a blood count done? Was a course of antibiotics begun? If there was sign of infection and no obvious source, was a blood culture ordered to help identify the bacteria? Was the fever simply shrugged off as part of her miscarriage?

3) If she did not present with fever when did it begin? Septicemia takes time to build, but she was in hospital for some days. Did the fever develop after her internal examinations and were they done with scrubbed hands/fresh gloves and instruments? Did it develop before or after the procedure to remove the dead fetus?

4) Answers to these questions are absolutely necessary; the source of the infection, the length of time she endured it and whether or not she was treated for it at all must be known. Let’s have the Morbidity and Mortality report. These questions are ultimately more relevant to Savita’s death than the abortion issue because if her infection was not being treated, she may well have died even if she had been induced.

On to the abortion part of the story, which is being seized upon and exploited by the usual suspects in a predictable attempt to indict the church’s teaching on the subject. We read that Savita and her husband were told they could not induce Savita’s labor because “this is a Catholic country.”

To which only two words can be said: Hogwash and Hogwash.

… if, for example, the saving of the life of the future mother, independently of her pregnant condition, should urgently require a surgical act or other therapeutic treatment which would have as an accessory consequence, in no way desired nor intended, but inevitable, the death of the fetus, such an act could no longer be called a direct attempt on an innocent life. Under these conditions the operation can be lawful, like other similar medical interventions – granted always that a good of high worth is concerned, such as life, and that it is not possible to postpone the operation until after the birth of the child, nor to have recourse to other efficacious remedies.”

Even if you are not well-versed on Catholic teaching, as apparently whoever spoke to the Halappanavars was not, just thinking this one through — if people do that, anymore — should have answered the question. Inducing the delivery of a baby at 17 weeks would likely insure its death (I believe the earliest gestation stage to survive is about 21 weeks) but unlike a dilation and curettage, which destroys the baby in utero (and which would not have been performed at 17 weeks, regardless) an induced delivery still allowed for the longshot of a live delivery — it still would allow for God’s determining hand in this life.

Some may (undoubtedly will) argue (and please do correct me if I am wrong, churchfolk), but my understanding of Catholic teaching is that this inducement could have been performed, and whoever told Savita and her husband that what they were asking for was impossible because of the “Catholic country” frankly did not know what he or she was talking about.

As I say, however, there is no guarantee that an inducement would have saved Savita, if there was an infection that was going unaddressed, in fact the physical stresses involved in delivering the baby after inducement might have sped the infection along.

At the crux of this death and why it happened, are questions about this Galway hospital’s policies and procedures, and whether medical negligence was a contributing factor. I suspect it very much was.

Abortion is an emotional issue; people on both sides go from silence-to-stridency in a heartbeat, but this story should not be running on the cheap fumes of hatred, emotionalism, sentimentalism and political opportunism. A young woman is dead; her young husband is grieved. Let’s actually find out what actually caused her death. I am willing to bet it was something other than her dying fetus and the poorly understood teachings of that “miserable ^%$$^& Catholic church”. The medical circumstances should not be discarded for the emotional catharsis of a good scream.

Yesterday we wondered whether Dorothy Day might not be a good Patron for post-abortive women, or perhaps an excellent Patron for Sanity in all of these life and “justice” questions. I think I will ask the Servant of God to pray for wisdom, light and clarity on this issue.

UPDATE: In the body of the above text I wanted to add, but was unsure of my facts, “Was the source of infection a fully-dilated cervix and leaking amniotic fluid going unaddressed?” Digital hairshirt quotes some unnamed source from Reddit, who makes a few educated guesses, but clearly, more information about this infection and treatment is needed.

UPDATE II: From The Thirsty Gargoyle: “It’s been pointed out to me that according to the reports, Savita was admitted to hospital with a miscarriage underway, her cervix being open from Sunday, but that antibiotics were only brought into play on Tuesday night, a full two days later; it’s as though she spent two days there with an open wound. Again, I’m no doctor and would appreciate if someone could clarify this, but given that this was a case of death from infection, it seems to me to have been utterly egregious medical negligence from the start, and nothing whatsoever to do with the law, medical guidelines, or religious principles.”

UPDATE III: People keep sending me this link spelling out Ireland’s abortion laws. It’s worth reading, and I had already linked to it in the text of the post — it’s the second “hogwash.”

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About Elizabeth Scalia