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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.

  • teigitur

    We do not know any of this yet. We all need to wait for the outcome of the investigation. What the IT reports, especially on abortion has to be taken with a pinch of salt. We need to wait for the facts.

  • teigitur

    Yes Kitty Holland of the IT is the daughter of the late Mary Holland. Who campaigned for abortion -on -demand all her life.

  • Matt Penfold

    Only if you are ignorant of about both medicine and statistics. The chances of sepsis with a retained dead fetus is pretty much 1. 

  • Matt Penfold

    I like how I provided example of peer reviewed literature and all you could do is offer a website of unconfirmed veracity. I presume because you are unable to cite any academic references. 

    Do you want to explain your failure to do so ?

  • Matt Penfold

    No pro-life, anti-abortion. At least be honest.

  • Lazarus

    But the child wasn’t dead. (If it were, there would have been no question of an abortion or talk of a heartbeat.)

  • Ronk

     did you two actually read the article? Apparentkly not. Neither Ireland’s civil law, nor Catholic doctrine, nor the universal moral law, caused this woman’s death.

  • Paul


  • Paul

    Matt, try talking to some of the women who have been traumatized by abortion, rather than reading so many ‘peer reviewed’ studies by academics with an axe to grind.

  • Genty

     There are two key unanswered questions to my mind
    First, it’s confusing as to when the obstetrician made the comment. Was it
    before the mother was admitted or when she was in hospital miscarrying? If the
    latter, then surely the medical staff could have invoked the law of double
    effect and saved the mother?

    Secondly, was the septicaemia the result of what
    the hospital did or did not do, or something catastrophic which occurred before

    What we do know is that a mother and her baby boy
    or girl are dead and a husband and potential father is left bereft.

    But the fact is that we have jigsaw pieces of
    information about this tragic event but not enough pieces to provide the full

  • CampionsBrag

    Perhaps you could explain which part of this article is a lie. The fact that it does not fit your narrative does not make it untrue. The lie is that you would pretend that you want abortion just when a mother’s life is at risk, in fact you want the ability to kill a child at any stage in its development in the womb whatever.

  • Paul

    Matt, it is for the church to teach the truth on issues of faith and morals. 

  • CampionsBrag

    Catholics do not believe that killing is wrong only if you’re killing another Catholic.

  • teigitur

    There are always of “Mass -Goers” who are Anti-Catholic. I do not know if Mr Kenny is one. Being a politician he could well be, as they hate any power except their own.
     Its not a contradiction in terms.

  • rjt1

    The alternative to this principle is consequentialism, which is certainly immoral. It involves accepting that one can do evil that good may (allegedly) come of it.

  • rjt1

    Opposition to abortion is not a “religious doctrine”. It is not contingent upon having any religious beliefs.

  • Matt Penfold

    Fetus, not child, If you want to be taken seriously at least learn the correct terminology. 

    There was nothing that could be done to save the pregnancy. The fetus was going to die no matter what anyone did. Once that was clear (and it would have been clear very early on) it became an matter of ensuring that the woman did not die. 

  • Matt Penfold

    Anecdotes are not evidence. You clearly have no idea how science works. 

  • Jacob Astudillo

     Do you have trouble reading? The guidelines concerning these cases are clear, it was the doctors who were ignorant about them and should have known better. It seems to me that you’re motivated by hatred towards the Catholic Church rather than sound thinking.

  • Bill Yeager

    Ooh burn! No, seriously Paul, can you not come up with something that even resembles a counterpoint to Sebek’s post?

    Or are you all “because shut up! that’s why!” ?

  • chionactis

    sounds like medical negligence with failure to surgically remove the fetus being only a part of the big picture.  why did this 17 week-pregnant and otherwise healthy woman present to the hospital ED with sudden, severe pain?  blood tests/blood cultures?  fevers?  wide-spectrum antibiotics via an IV while medically locating the source(s) – were they utilized upon her admission?  where’s the rest of the story?  something caused the baby inside her to go into distress, and ultimately, her own distress.  what was it and that is what needs to be found out.  

  • la catholic state

    The only question I would have is why Savita was not given an epidural to remove the severe pain?!  it seems she asked for an abortion in the belief that it would relieve the pain…..but an epidural would have been safe and effective pain relief.

  • Diffal

    Child/human being in the foetal stage of development/foetus, these terms are quite readily interchangeable. “Child” is often used colloquially to describe unborn human persons. If this woman presented showing signs of sepsis what she needed was antibiotic treatment first and foremost. I have yet to encounter a situation where abortion cures septicaemia.

  • Jonathan Manning

    If abortion saves women’s lives then why are women in the UK more at risk of dying in childbirth than those in Ireland?
    Lifetime risk of dying due to pregnancy complications: UK 1 in 8,200; Ireland 1 in 47,600

  • Matt Penfold

    No they are not. In a technical discipline such as medicine works have specific meanings. 

    And your lack of experience counts for nothing. 

  • Diffal

    You may have noticed the word “colloquially” in my last post. This is not a technical medical website, yet we still understand what people mean when they refer to the unborn person as a child as opposed to using the technically correct term “foetus”. Since both are developmental stages in the life of a human person and since childhood follows the Foetal stage there is a common practice of using the term child to refer to the unborn person colloquially, such as in the phrase “unborn child”. Now when writing academically or commenting professionally I do use the appropriate medical terminology.

    While I can’t speak for you, it has been my experience that people can often hide behind medical terminology to dehumanise situations and individuals, be it others or themselves. i have also seen it used as a defence mechanism by those who don’t like to get to close to a situation. I don’t refer to abortions specifically but it is a phenomenon I have encountered widely when I worked in primary and secondary care.

  • Leticia Velasquez

    In the 1960′s in America, those with Down syndrome lived in horrid institutions and were considered ineducable. The pro-abortion lobby used the birth of a child with Down syndrome, commonly considered a tragedy, as a wedge issue to legalize abortion in a ‘hard case’.Very much like the tragedy we see in Savita’s death. 
     Now we have abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy. There is a 75-92% rate of abortion of babies with Down syndrome despite the fact that inclusion in education has given them far more ability than ever before. So nothing was solved by acting impulsively on the hard cases, and 40 years later, 55 million Americans are dead. Don’t fall for this trap, Ireland!

  • Matt Penfold

    So you are only ignorant some of the time ? 

    A simple admission you got it wrong would have sufficed. Clearly you are a bit out of your depth, 

  • Jonathan West

    By the way, the doctrine of “dual effect” is purest bunkum. You can’t with any honesty say that an action has an “unintended effect” if the effect is a reasonably predictable consequence of an action.

    It is a well established legal precedent that a reasonably predictable effect cannot be regarded as unintentional, and that a person has legal and even criminal responsibility for such actions.

    To give you a recent example, consider the conviction yesterday of train guard Christopher McGee for the manslaughter of Georgia Varley. The judge had this to say on the subject.

    “You did not intend to kill or even injure her, but you displayed an appalling disregard for her safety, and she paid for your criminal negligence with her life.You must have known that a passenger who falls between the train and the platform is likely to be killed. As the guard of the train, you were in complete control of the movement of the train. That control carries with it the direct and personal responsibility for the safety of passengers.You alone determined whether the train remained stationary or began to move. Your decision and your action determined whether Georgia Varley was safe from risk.”

    Therefore, to take an action that has a reasonably predictable consequence of killing somebody is to intend to kill that person, even if there are other intended consequences in addition.

  • Stev84

    The Catholic Church has lost all rights to define what is “good”, “moral” or “evil”. Leave that to secular institutions that don’t have such a horrific record of human rights abuses

  • Stev84

    It was the failure to remove a doomed fetus that caused the infection of the first place. Giving anti-biotics without removing that tissue is pointless

  • Stev84

    It is also possible to remove to fetus without destroying the tube in some cases.

    What is NOT approved treatment is waiting for the tubes to rupture which is standard operating procedure in Catholic “hospitals” because they have to manufacture circumstances in which the mother’s life becomes endangered.

  • Stev84

     More lies based on pure ignorance

  • Stev84

     Hahahah. Now I’m the bigot. Religious zealots are unbelievable.

  • Stev84

    Statistics can be faked. Especially when it’s about the cause of death. It’s so easy to list the secondary cause of death while neglecting to mention what caused the complications in the first place.

  • Stev84

    Oh the irony of religious fanatics suddenly caring about facts when they never let facts get in the way of their delusions when it’s inconvenient to them

  • mikethelionheart

    Please take your tiny-minded bigotry and hatred elsewhere.

  • barryrichards


    “Enda Kenny is
    predictably making the most of the situation: he shouldn’t be allowed to get
    away with it”. With all due respect  to you that is utter nonsense.
    Fine Gael is a pro life party.

    Evidence please re
    Kenny?  Kenny is actually pro life and has said very little on the matter.
    I have l have ready tackled stupid comments in the foreign media 
    attacking  Ireland
    for being prolife position.   Otherwise  I agree with the
    trust of you article. Incidentally there are NO votes in the abortion 
    issue for Irish  politicians. 

  • guest.

     She was deined an abortion because it is a catholic country.

  • aearon43

    So then you admit to being not pro-choice, but pro-abortion?

  • aearon43

    This point is addressed in the article.

  • Inkjet

    Presume you agree with Sharia law then ? Different groups of people in a Soverigne state having different laws for themselfs, is this a good thing ? Would any nation state survive that ? Ireland is a soverigne state, with it’s own laws, it is these that we’re (or maybe not) being followed, not a religious doctrine.

  • aearon43

    very mature response, matt. Thanks for elevating the level of discourse here…

  • aearon43

    Too bad for the murdered child though.

  • aearon43

    No, Matt, you’re just a pedant. 

  • aearon43

    “Religious zealots are unbelievable.”

    Yes, you’re a bigot.

  • aearon43

    Right, this is not really a complex or subtle point and is made very clearly in the article. 

  • Mr Grumpy

    If however it had been necessary to move the train immediately to avoid another train crashing into it at high speed, you surely would not suggest that he was morally or legally responsible for her death. It would be a genuinely unintended effect.

  • Andrew

    You have just made that statistic up. Women lose child in vitro all the time and do not acquire sepsis. Sepsis is a specific pathology with can be ascertained to a specific cause, and, so far, no one other than this poor woman’s husband has claimed the poisoning was caused by lack of abortion (which, as Lazarus rightly points out, is performed on a living child, not a dead one, negating in effect your point at source).

  • Andrew

    ^Should read ‘in utero’, not ‘in vitro’, obviously.