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The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar should not be exploited to sweep away Irish abortion law, under which she could legally have been saved

Enda Kenny is predictably making the most of the situation: he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it

By on Thursday, 15 November 2012

Protesters in Dublin mistakenly blame Ireland's abortion laws for the death of Savita Halappanavar (Photo: PA)

Protesters in Dublin mistakenly blame Ireland's abortion laws for the death of Savita Halappanavar (Photo: PA)

The Irish Government, reports the Irish Independent, “has come under heightened pressure to reform complex abortion laws after the death of a pregnant Indian woman who suffered a miscarriage.”

The facts are these. A 31-year-old dentist was 17 weeks pregnant when she died on October 28 after suffering a miscarriage and septicaemia. Her husband, Praveen, has alleged that doctors refused several requests for a medical termination because the foetus’s heartbeat was present. Mr Halappanavar has claimed that following his late wife’s appeals, they were told: “This is a Catholic country.”

This is a case which clearly needs looking at closely; on the face of it, a refusal to save Mrs Halappanavar’s life by inducing her unborn child, when it was clear that her death would in any case lead to the death of the child (this in fact happened in this case), does not seem to be consistent either with Catholic moral theology or, it is now being claimed, with Irish law or the guidelines which govern medical practice in such cases.

The anti-Catholic Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is predictably, of course, and some would say cynically, exploiting the situation, and has declared that his government will respond by the end of the month to a 2010 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that called for the reform of the Irish abortion law. He said: “This is a tragic case where we have a woman who lost her life, her child is lost and her husband is bereaved. We have agreed to be in contact with the (European) court by November 30.”

The fact is, however, that this tragic death by no means justifies any change to Irish law — or medical practice, if it is properly carried out according to Irish Medical Council guidelines. Eilís Mulroy has a comment piece today, also in The Irish Independent, under the headline “Pro-choice side must not hijack this terrible event”, asking the obvious question: “Was Ms Halappanavar treated in line with existing obstetrical practice in Ireland? In this kind of situation the baby can be induced early (though is very unlikely to survive). The decision to induce labour early would be fully in compliance with the law and the current guidelines set out for doctors by the Irish Medical Council.

“Those guidelines allow interventions to treat women where necessary, even if that treatment indirectly results in the death to the baby. If they aren’t being followed, laws about abortion won’t change that. The issue then becomes about medical protocols being followed in hospitals and not about the absence of legal abortion in Ireland.”

It looks to me as though Pius XII’s ruling on such cases is relevant here (and also as though the ignorance of their religion of those treating Mrs Halappanavar — who refused to save her mouthing the words “this is a Catholic country” — has a lot to answer for): ”If,” said Pope Pius in 1951, “the saving of the life of the future mother … 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.”

This principle has always governed Irish medical practice, and it looks very much as though it should have done here. Eilís Mulroy quotes Professor John Bonnar, then chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who spoke about the matter to the All Party Parliamentary Committee’s Fifth Report on Abortion, saying: “In current obstetrical practice, rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention is required at a stage in pregnancy when there will be little or no prospect for the survival of the baby, due to extreme immaturity.

“In these exceptional situations failure to intervene may result in the death of both the mother and baby. We consider that there is a fundamental difference between abortion carried out with the intention of taking the life of the baby, for example for social reasons, and the unavoidable death of the baby resulting from essential treatment to protect the life of the mother.”

Ireland, in fact, has one of the lowest death rates of mothers in pregnancy anywhere in the world. That didn’t help Mrs Halappanavar or her baby, both of whom were lost because normal medical practice in Ireland was not followed after a grossly misplaced application to her case, by those treating her, of a heretical misreading of Catholic moral law. These tragic deaths cannot justify the replacement of the world’s most civilised abortion law by the pro-death laws now almost universal throughout Europe. Catholics everywhere should pray for Ireland in these politically dangerous times.

  • scary goat

    I had a friend who was pregnant and developed dangerously high blood pressure.  She wanted her baby.  She spent months in hospital on medications and tried to carry her baby long enough so that he would have a chance.  Eventually at nearly 7 months, the situation became critical and they tried to do a caesarian hoping to save both mother and baby.  Sadly the baby died after a few days, and the mother was devastated…..but at least the mother lived to continue her life with her husband and other 2 small daughters.  It is not right to let a woman die like that……and how different these situations are from those who have abortions for any or no reason. 

  • rjt1

    Thank you, Dr Oddie, for clearly stating the principle of double effect.

  • leliorisen

    This is why religious institutions cannot be responsible for setting anti-abortion legislation.

    When the life of the mother is shown to be of less value than the life of the fetus, something is clearly off-kilter.

    To deny a woman an abortion when the health of the mother is at stake is obscene.  To force a woman to bear the child of rape or incest is equally immoral and unacceptable. 

    The only thing that those that cloak themselves in the term ‘pro-life’ care about is controlling the lives of others. Usually, they stop caring about life the moment the fetus is out of the womb.

  • Jonathan West

    Should abortions be allowed for any reason at all – including saving the life of the mother?

    My understanding, based on for instance the article Pro-lifers cannot win the debate by bargaining over the lives of the unborn by Francis Phillips and the subsequent discussion in the comment thread is that Catholic doctrine states that abortions are absolutely forbidden, including to save the life of the mother.

    If that is so, then according to Catholic doctrine it is right that Savita Halappanavar was left to die when an abortion could have saved her, even if the foetus was going to live only a short time further anyway.

    And in that case, it is hypocritical of William Oddie to talk about how she could have been saved under Irish abortion law when, if Ireland fully implemented catholic doctrine as argued for on these pages, she would have been left to die exactly as happened.

  • nytor

    Hear, hear. This incident is being cynically exploited by the pro-abortion left and their lies should be resisted.

  • leliorisen

    Oh, so sorry. Did Ireland’s anti-abortion law kill this woman or not? You know the answer. Tell us the ‘lie.’

  • Diffal

    Maybe they have been using imprecise terms which has caused your confusion. Direct abortion, the intentional and wilful termination of a human life is indeed always wrong. Murder is always murder. However when the child dies as a result of an attempt to save the mother(as happens in cases of Fallopian tube removal in ectopic pregnancy and, in certain cases, induced delivery early in pregnancy, where it does not constitute a direct abortion. this is not abortion but the unavoidable and tragic death of a child. You may think I am simply playing word games but I assure you I am not catholic moral theology considers ends, means and intentions. Had UCHG implemented either procedures based on Catholic moral theology or appropriate antibiotic prophylaxis and treatment it is unlikely Mrs Halappanavar would have died

  • W Oddie

    Have you READ my piece? Apparently not. I’m not just talking about irish law, I’m talking about the circumstances under which abortion IS allowed by the Church to save the life of the mother.

  • W Oddie

    No, it didn’t. That’s the answer.

  • Jonathan West

    I have read it. I’m comparing it with other pieces published here, and noting the hypocrisy of the difference in approach when theory bumps into real circumstances.

  • Diffal

    The “This is a catholic country comment” betrays the dissolution of the Catholic Intellectual live in countries like Ireland(By no means only Ireland  When legal and moral structures founded on solid philosophical and biological data remain(Life begins at conception) but without a lived understanding of said structures, due to a lack of intellectual and catechetical formation in both civil/academic and religious circles(How many Irish Priests and Bishops could or would explain the Doctrine of Double effect?) then dangerous and fatal situations like this occur. If this incident was caused because of Ireland’s Catholic Heritage it is because my country WAS a Catholic Country. Now it is a culturally Catholic Country.

  • Lago1

    Wouldn’t it be better to tackle the article on its own merits rather than to simply say that you have read something different elsewhere?    The fact is that  Oddie’s article does reflect actual catholic teaching.  

    He also makes clear that there is ignorance on the matter. So pointing out that you yourself may have been confused by other ignorant opinion hardly invalidates his point.

  • srdc

    You are missing the point. The doctors refused to treat the mother, when the fetus was still alive. This is opposed to Catholic moral theology. It could have saved her life. Hence, it has nothing to do with abortion.

  • mollysdad

    Ireland’s abortion law, dating from 1861, is identical to Britain’s and also to the one India had at independence.

  • Diffal

    That is one of the many good things about Catholicism: Magisterial Teaching.
    The Church has an official position and she presents it as part of a coherent whole. If it is occasionally misrepresented that does not change the facts the church officially puts forwards and those opinions and interpretations held by individual Catholics. Dr. Oddie to my mind has put forward the clearest synthesis of the Catholic Point of view that I have seen thus far on the CH site

  • Jonathan West

    Well, I hear a lot here about how a newly fertilised ovum has the same moral worth as an adult human, and therefore to kill it is murder. I did debate this issue quite extensively with regular contributors here, and at no time was I told that in fact a newly fertilised ovum had a lesser value that justified its sacrifice for the life of the mother.
    And Catholic moral theology, for instance on assisted suicide, makes it clear that it is unacceptable to take action to shorten a life even by a few days, no matter what the justification may be.

    Therefore, it seems perfectly clear that catholic moral theology was correctly followed in the Savita Halappanavar case, whether or not the abortion would have been permissible under Irish law. Under catholic doctrine, there was no moral justification for taking action to shorten the life of the foetus, even for a few days, by performing a medical termination, even though failure to act resulted in the death of the mother.

    For instance Paul Williams wrote an article here earlier this year One day this woman will be a saint, about Chiara Petrillo,a 28-year-old Italian mother who apparently refused life-saving cancer treatment that would have damaged or destroyed her baby. Let me quote a passage from that article.

    If treatment is given with the intention of saving the life of a mother, where the completely unintended result may nevertheless be to kill her unborn baby, it is morally acceptable. This is utterly different from killing the baby in order to save the mother. In the latter case one actually intends to kill the baby in order that the mother should live. Catholic moral theory, based on Natural Law, holds that it is never, absolutely never, morally acceptable to kill an innocent person in order to help another.

    A medical termination of a still living foetus seems quite clearly to be a case of “killing the baby in order to save the mother”.

    So, no, I don’t think I have my catholic doctrine wrong. I think William Oddie is being hypocritical wheh he writes as a Catholic on a Catholic blog criticising  the handling of the situation when in fact it has been handled precisely as Catholic moral theology would require.

  • srdc


    This Italian mother refused treatment that was not wrong. She refused it anyway, which is a different issue from what Catholic moral theology teaches.

    This was her choice.

    The principle of double effect says the good outcome must outweigh the bad outcome, which means that the good outcome would be saving the life of the mother with treatment, even if it kills the fetus.

  • Jonathan West

    I realise that, and the article explained that quite clearly. The article also explained the distinction between her situation and “killing the baby in order to save the mother”, which was the choice facing the doctors with Savita Halappanavar, even though they knew the baby would and could not live long.

  • NewMeena

    “Enda Kenny is predictably making the most of the situation: he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it”

    Shame on you. Eternal shame.

  • NewMeena

    The perception of the law among the priest-ridden Irish people, fostered by the church, killed this woman.

  • Patrickhowes

    The point here is the clear teaching of Pus xll.Under no circumstances should life be deliberately ended.However,indirect abortion is not considered a mortal sin,if as a result of treatment to save the woman,the baby Dr Oddie ,were to die this is not murder.For example if a woman is suffering from cancer and receives chemotherapy and asa result of this the baby were to die,then this is not murder.I find Dr Oddie that you were too harsh on the doctors.It would appear that septiceamia set in at a later date.If the doctors had known this,Iam sure that they would have induced and allowed the parents to have cuddled their little for a while,rather than it being sucked in too pieces.A very sad turn of events that happens one in a million times and requires no legislation but rather the medical doctors to create clear guidelines

  • Patrickhowes

    The Church does not allow abortion under any circumstance.An indirect abortion can result due to treatment

  • Patrickhowes

    To clear up the point,to have induced delivery would not have been classed as urder but to suck the baby up in to pieces would have been.

  • Patrickhowes

    But did they?Did they know she was ill at the time or just simply in the stages of a miscarriage?I lived in Chile were often women had tried to start a miscarriage as abortion is illegal.Should they have finished the job?No!

  • Patrickhowes

    Yes but she fought and gave that baby 7 months of life and love!

  • Alan

    “The anti-Catholic Taoiseach, Enda Kenny”.  Funny, I read a newspaper article today (admittedly by a pro-abortionist) describing him as “staunchly Catholic”.  As far as I know he is a regular Mass-goer.  Why call him “anti-Catholic”?  

  • John Ross Martyn

    Have you considered the case in Phoenix, Arizona, a year or two ago? A pregnant woman was admitted to a Roman Catholic hospital. Doctors formed the view that, unless she had an abortion, her life was at risk. A member of the hospital ethics committee was consulted (she was a nun who was on the administrative staff of the hospital). She said an abortion was allowable, and it was performed. When the local bishop found out, he declared that this was wrong, and that the nun had excommunicated herself.  His view was endorsed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more information, search against Bishop Olmsted, and/or Sister McBryde. 

  • Jonathan West

    If that were true, then there would be no Catholic objection to the morning after pill, as that is exactly what it does, at a very early stage of pregnancy.

  • Alexander VI

    Dear Bill,You need  a refresher course in moral theology. See  John Smeaton’s blog. 

  • Clairelise Armitage

    It’s president Obama’s fault. 

  • scary goat

     yes exactly. That’s what I am saying.  She did the right thing.  She tried.  There is a sensible middle path between willy-nilly abortion and leaving women to die from pregnancy related conditions.  You try your best…..and do what you can.

  • Drjones81

    It is indeed sad that so many use this woman’s death to promote a separate agenda without waiting for the outcome of an investigation. From what we know so far then neither the law nor the church’s teaching are an issue in this so thank you Mr. Oddie for making that clear.

    Abortion is not a trivial matter and has so many serious consequences for females, an awful lot of whom are very young and yet we hear almost nothing about that. There is the occasional attempt at denial regarding the significant risk of a premature birth for someone who has previously had an abortion. We don’t hear so much about the range of associated psychological issues.
    Neither do we ever hear anything said to males about having some responsibility in all this.
    It’s all dumped on the female to cope with and the best that the U.K. can offer is to visit a clinic!

    It would be amusing if it were not so sad to see how many people in this country think they have the right to lecture Ireland on it’s laws and customs.

  • Sebek

    Sorry, but Catholic dictates and Irish laws and their interpretors killed this woman… no doubt there. You can write a law seemingly granting abortiion in rare cases, but then make it so confounding and convoluted… trust politicians and theologians do be experts at that…  that for all purposes, there is no way to save the woman’s life. And that is what happened here.  

  • Sebek

    Baby????… this is a featus, and it was inside her all these 7 months…. What she did was brave for sure, but not at the cost of her own life. And that is the point here. Mother’s life is more critical that the FEATUS. 

  • xenukolob

    Pope dopes can apply whatever principles they like to themselves. They have no right to impose them on others.

  • Sebek

    Ireland does not seem to have any qualms about lecturing people who do not believe in oppressive catholic doctrine. In this case, the lady was surely not a catholic, so, what right did Ireland and its people have in killing her to protect arcane and backward laws?

  • Matt Penfold

    Has your god given you permission to lie ? Because lying you are (let’s not have silly denials, since it demeans you). 

  • Matt Penfold

    No it is not. The section of the 1861 act dealing with abortion has been largely replaced in England, Scotland and Wales by the 1967 Abortion Act (plus subsequent amendments). 

  • Matt Penfold

    It is not for the Church to decide under what circumstances an abortion is allowed.

  • Eamon

    So what is the name of the consultant in charge of this poor lady’s care?

  • Matt Penfold

    There is a reason you do not hear much about psychological issues with abortion. That is because in most cases there are none, or there is a psychologically positive outcome. Where there is a negative outcome it is nearly always the result of a much wanted pregnancy being terminated late-term because the fetus is not viable, or the women’s life is at risk.

    Adler et al., 1990
    Zabin et al., 1989
    Gilchrist et al., 1995
    Gaynes et al., 2005

    Not an exhaustive list, as that would run to over 100 citations!

    Can you explain your ignorance of this literature ? 

  • Elel1045

    Good luck making this argument. The reality is that the doctors involved weren’t sure where the line was to protect them from prosecution. How sick did Savita have to be before the forced birth contingent would agree an abortion was justified?

  • Stev84

    A doctrine which is both nonsensical and immoral.

    It leads to Catholic “hospitals” waiting until women get worse until their life is finally truly in danger so that they can get the necessary treatment. And I’m not talking about this case or just Ireland. The standard Catholic treatment for ectopic pregnancies is to wait for a tubal rupture. Or to remove the entire tube instead of just the fetus – although the outcome for the fetus is exactly the same.

  • Stev84

    The point here is that health care shouldn’t be decided by priests.

    The sad thing is the religious fanatics downplaying this and downplaying how often this truly happens all of the world (especially in deeply superstitious and underdeveloped countries) in order to satisfy their religious delusions. “Pro-life” indeed.

  • guest.

     If abortion was legal she would be alive. I am a religious man btu no woman should have choices about her bpdy (that ultimately led to he death) made on the basis of somebody elses religious beliefs.

  • Stev84

    Also consider that she wasn’t even Catholic. Yet her life was ended by religious doctrines she didn’t believe in.

  • Stev84

    Yet another disgusting, old man who thinks he can tell women what to do with their bodies.

  • Stev84

    Like when the Catholic Church decided that limbo didn’t exist after all and finally admitted that they have no fucking clue what happens to baby souls when they die.

  • Guest

    Do I understand correctly that this is a comment by a male theologian with no medical training about whether the Pope would have given permission for this woman’s life to be saved?  How totally not helpful.

  • Monado

    So you have to damage the mother’s reproductive system in order to preserve the fiction that what you’re doing is not going to end the development of a blastocyst!? That is cynical beyond belief. How about saving a woman’s life and giving her the chance to get pregnant again in the future, instead of cutting her chances in half?