On media malpractice and Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death

On media malpractice and Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death November 16, 2012

Back in March I wrote in “How To Cover A Hate Crime” about my obsession about the horrific beating death of Shaima Al Awadhi, a 32-year-old mother of five:

Apparently other people have been obsessed, too, as there are literally thousands of stories out there about the crime — virtually all of them centered around it being an alleged hate crime.

In April I wrote in “Reporting The Hate In Hate Crimes“:

When we looked at stories last week, we noticed that the media seemed to be pretty sure that the murder was a hate crime and that meme dominated the coverage. Rather dramatically dominated the coverage. That remains the case.

Anti-hate crime protest movements sprung up globally as communities expressed widespread outrage over the circumstances of her death. I asked if the media should wait for more information before running with a hate crime story. I noted that if it weren’t a hate crime, the media would look horrible and irresponsible in how they handled it. Was there enough information to frame this as a hate crime story? What facts should the media wait for, I wondered, before running with the hate crime angle?

This week we learned that Al Awadhi’s husband was charged with her murder.

I thought of that rush to judgment when readers began sending along stories about another woman’s tragic death. One wrote:

The story is about a Hindu woman in Ireland who died when Drs refused to do an abortion on the grounds that ‘this is a Catholic country’. Expect the story to get legs in the US as the prochoice movement is already pushing it at Progressive sites. Might check it out.

Indeed, the US media have adopted the pro-choice movement’s certainty about the circumstances surrounding Savita Halappanavar’s death. A casual trip around the internet will yield plenty of stories with headlines and ledes of “woman dies because she was denied an abortion.” The Times of India went with “Ireland murders pregnant Indian dentist.” Those stories tend to place blame on the Roman Catholic Church based on the widower’s claim that his wife died because she was refused an abortion and the reason for such was because Ireland is a Catholic country.

Pro-choice activists and the media have said Halappanavar’s death should force changes to Ireland’s abortion laws, which protect unborn children from termination.

That is a very complicated and interesting debate to have, but for our purposes, we’re only interested in media coverage of this story.

Irish Times has a good roundup of America media reaction.

One medical professional wrote to us that “Most journalists don’t ‘get religion’ any more than they ‘get medical science.’ … What really bothers me about the story is that it recklessly thrusts upon an uneducated public an unproven and questionable assertion that this woman would have lived if she had been allowed to have an abortion. The more detailed stories that I have read indicate that she died of septicemia AND and E.coli ESBL. This provides valid reason to question whether this woman would have survived, regardless of the treatment. This ESBL-producing E.coli strain is harder to treat than MRSA. The E.coli ESBL infection may not have even been related to the miscarriage initially, but she’s been cremated, so there is no way to do further investigation. The E.coli ESBL could have been the cause of the miscarriage in the first place. Again, my point is that there is no conclusive evidence that earlier termination of the pregnancy would have saved this woman. She had a terribly antibiotic resistant infection that caused septicemia. It is very possible that her death could have been hastened (and actually was) by the medical removal (D & C) of the baby, dead or alive. If there was infection in the uterus, once the blood vessels were ruptured the infection quickly became systemic, and antibiotics were of no help.”

I do wonder whether the media has any responsibility to wait for the facts of the medical investigation before concluding the cause of death. To be fair, this Irish Times report says one government health official (who said “I am privy to certain facts but I am not privileged to share them”) that “often in a case where miscarriage was inevitable, it was the view of the medical experts that allowing that to occur naturally represented the safest option.” Still, this viewpoint isn’t exactly being highlighted in the above stories.

When did the infection present? Was it related to the miscarriage? What were the medical options that were available? Do the medical professionals agree with the widower’s assessment of the course of treatment? Did the medical professionals follow the law? What are the established protocols? We know that Ireland does permit induction to save the health of the mother. What went into the decision to avoid that in this case? Is this a story about medical malpractice? Should these questions be answered before running with the story in the manner it’s running?

OK, moving on from the medical issue, what about the way Catholic teaching is being presented? If the allegations against the hospital are true, was the hospital treating its patients according to Catholic teaching? Has the media explained Catholic teaching well in this matter? If not, why not? How does the Catholic Church’s teaching that the lives of both mother and child need to be cared for relate to this particular circumstance? The Anchoress has some helpful links on that matter here.

There’s much more that can and will be looked at here. Here’s some trenchant media analysis. Do let us know if you see any examples of good journalism on this sad story (or particularly noteworthy advocacy).

And here’s a video of Savita Halappanavar dancing the ‘Zor Ka Zhatkha’ with her husband Praveen and another couple at a Diwali festival two years ago. It’s difficult to watch the young and beautiful couple, so full of joy and life, in light of the tragedy of her death.

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  • Martha

    No joking about the narrative being presented or how it’s been used; I’m in the middle of one combox debate where a person announced her forthcoming reception into the Catholic Church and out of the traps some hit with “How can you join an organisation that murdered this woman?”

    The fact that these are all Americans talking about an Irish story annoys me (to say the least) because they know damn-all about it. Has anyone mentioned the fX case, which has left our laws in limbo? There, the Supreme Court decision held that a woman had a right to an abortion if there was a real and substantial risk to her life. We had a referendum afterwards, which did not clarify matters all that much, and no government since 1992 – even the ones touting themselves as socially liberal – have dared pass any legislation on the matter, since nobody wants to touch this issue with a ten-foot barge pole.

    Has anybody mentioned the principle of double effect, where under Catholic teaching, the inducement of labour would be permitted to save the life of the mother?

    Finally, has anyone compared maternal mortality rates for the USA and Ireland? According to the CIA World Factbook, the USA had 21 per 100,000 and Ireland had 6 per 100,000 (2010 figures). Yet the Irish birthrate is higher than the USA – 13.7 per 1,000 for the USA and 15.81 per 1,000 for Ireland in 2012 estimates.

    So it is more complicated than “lack of abortion kills women”, but that’s the angle being covered – and here in Ireland, as well as abroad.

  • Odd that this search turns up nothing but blogs.

    That said, I don’t think the media have been incorrect or irresponsible to go with the timeline as recounted by her husband, which does seem to have a bearing on “When did the infection present?”

    • Hey, where’d my search link go? l’ll just post it as text: https://encrypted.google.com/search?q=savita+halappanavar+%22double+effect%22&tbm=nws

    • Dennis

      I’ve seen CNN covering it, too, but it is huge in the blogs.

      It’s definitely fine for them to go with that timeline. They should keep in mind that his recollection could easily be wrong in significant ways (most people aren’t totally on top of details when their spouse is dying), but it’s reasonable and it is, I think, all they have right now.

      The timeline is important, but it’s ambiguous as to whether or not an abortion or early inducement would have helped anything. So, they’re right to use his timeline, but not his conclusion that denying her an abortion killed her. It seems most likely to me that both she and the baby were killed by the same thing and in the same way, instead of the baby carrying the infection and eventually spreading it to her. Certainly, it’s a possibility at this point, and that’s given short shrift in the stories. The family has their conclusion, but again: people are usually not super clear-thinking when a loved one just died in such a tragic way. That’s something a journalist should take into account.

      One angle that I haven’t seen covered is whether or not, after it was clear the pregnancy was at huge risk, she was denied any other treatments that might have saved her because they’d increase risk to the baby. The family wouldn’t necessarily be raising that accusation, they wouldn’t necessarily know. But it’s something that could happen, and would be more obviously problematic than denying a termination. I think it would be reasonable to expect a journalist to bring up that issue. They might have, and there’s nothing to report, I don’t know.

      • Dennis

        Now that I see your actual search, you’re right, that hasn’t shown up. Not sure I’d call that odd, though, unfortunately.

  • Gerry

    “We know that Ireland does permit induction to save the health of the mother.”

    Do you know? What’s the ACTUAL text of Irish law on inductions, regarding the life of the mother? Medical guidelines in Ireland permit it. An Irish Supreme Court order permits it. An European Court order dictates Ireland must legislate on abortion BECAUSE of its own supreme court ruling.

    But as far as I have read, the law in Ireland as coded in the books PROHIBITS any abortion, and no party has dared to legislate against that because, can you guess? IT’S A CATHOLIC COUNTRY and politicians won’t take the risk of defying the pope.

  • Julia

    Very good coverage in The Herald, a UK Catholic newspaper, about the theological-ethical rules that the medical folks should have been following. Interesting statement from Pius XII about situations very similar in which inducing an early delivery is not prohibited, nor is treatment that the mother requires. In addition, it includes facts on what Irish law/medical protocols require; does not include any info on the E. coli infection.

    I’m thinking there may be a complication in Ireland, like our HIPPA rules, keeping medical personnel from discussing what really happened – leaving reporters with only what the distraught husband/father had to say.


  • On the other hand, Dr. Jen Gunter (drjengunter.wordpress.com) lays out the alternatives quite succintly. She is an OB/GYN and discusses the legal and medical possibilities.

  • Cvg

    Would fair coverage require mentioning the number of viable third trimester babies killed trying to save the mother during a medical emergency?

  • Will

    “This is a Catholic country”, if it was really said, sounds like a foreigner talking to me. Would an actual native of a “Catholic” country be impelled to go about saying it?