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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.

  • Jonathan West

    Yes, it’s foreseeable that it will rain tomorrow, even if I don’t intend it to. But if you take an action knowing that a particular event is a foreseeable result, then you have some degree of intention of bringing about that event.

  • Jonathan West

    You are getting two things mixed up here. The first is the general principle of moral consequentialism, by which actions are judged according to their foreseeable effects. An action is judged to be morally good if the foreseeable good consequences outweigh the bad ones.

    For instance, if you entirely accidentally run somebody over with your car, you aren’t considered to have done anything wrong if you were driving carefully and the accident was unavoidable. But if you were driving while drunk, you are considered to have some responsibility for the action even if you felt you were in perfect control of the car, because a foreseeable effect of driving while drunk is that your slowed reactions and impaired judgement will make it more likely that you will hit somebody, even though you don’t intend to.

    The second thing is how you judge the relative good and evil of foreseeable effects. Now, by Catholic moral theology, a newly fertilised ovum has the same moral worth as a fully grown adult human. Therefore, by the rules of moral consequentialism, it is not permissible to sacrifice an unborn life in order to save the mother, because the moral worth of the baby is no less than that of the mother. An action which has the foreseeable effect of terminating the unborn life has that moral consequence irrespective of whether you try and talk your way round it by calling the effect “indirect” or “unintended”.

    The net effect of catholic moral theology in this respect is to say that abortion is not permissible for any reason at all, including to save the life of the mother, even if the unborn child could only live a few more days anyway.

    Of course, catholic moral theologians don’t like to talk of moral consequentialism, even when they are basing their judgements on it. They prefer to talk in moral absolutist terms, where it is the action that is good or evil irrespective of its consequences in individual cases. But if abortion is to be treated as evil in absolutist terms, then performing an abortion is an absolute evil even if the consequence is to save the life of the mother.

  • John Ross Martyn

    Which excommunication was reversed? the one in Arizona? the one in Recife? or both?
    And why? was it because the act done was not classifiable as an abortion? or was it because the abortion was allowable?

  • Origami_Isopod

    Hitler was a Catholic, no matter what your priest taught you. “Gott Mit Uns” was on the belt buckle of the Nazi uniform.

  • Origami_Isopod

    It’s amazing how conservatives who complain about the French Revolution never consider about how all the “lesser people” were starving at the hands of the royals and nobles. It’s always about preserving the hierarchies of society with your ilk, then and now.

  • Origami_Isopod

    His comment is much more rational and fact-filled than yours.

    And if you’re not outraged at the death of this woman due to antiquated superstitious beliefs, your moral compass is broken, and I can see why you look to the RCC to guide you.

  • Origami_Isopod

    Its people like you, who misrepresent truth, who cause confusion in others.

    Classic projection from an authoritarian who seeks to cloud the actual facts and silence any questioners.

  • Origami_Isopod

    I always find it hilarious that such a deeply misogynist organization is called “she” by its defenders.

    Also I suppose I should be glad for you that you’ve found a one-stop shop to outsource all your critical thinking to. Seems you require one.

  • Origami_Isopod

    A bigot hates people for what they are. A Catholic is what you choose to be. And, considering that you are probably opposed to full human and civil rights for GLBT people, I wouldn’t throw that term around if I were you.

  • aearon43

    well the solution certainly wasn’t to murder all of them, was it, now?

  • Origami_Isopod

    Funny how I only ever hear “Let’s wait for the facts” when the accused is of a privileged group. White middle-class or upper-class rapists, white-collar criminals, and clerics. Not that these are mutually exclusive categories, mind you. 

  • Origami_Isopod

    Abortion SHOULD be “on demand.” It’s the woman’s own decision whether to have one, not for a bunch of moralizing men, especially celibate ones, to decide. (Or, for that matter, the sort of woman who’s decided that since SHE “had to” suffer by having 10 children, every other woman should.)

  • Origami_Isopod

    I imagine that such a large and all-pervasive organization will have *some* decent people in it and enough resources for some medical research. Imagine how much more could be freed up without all the superstitious and oppressive nonsense.

    As for aspirin, though, willow bark has been known for millennia to cure headache; someone would have hit upon isolating salicylic acid eventually.

  • Origami_Isopod

    You mean, the way pro-LIARS exploit photos of stillbirths to terrorize women at reproductive health clinics? Or exploit lies about abortion causing breast cancer, sterility, and depression?

    The Catholic church is a disgusting misogynist organization. Beat and rape children, then blame them for “tempting” their rapists. Let women die with festering fetuses within them. Saw into women’s pubic bones, leaving them crippled and in pain for life, to make them into more-efficient breeding machines. Lie in poor countries about condoms not preventing AIDS. Promote homophobia, leading countless young GLBT people to take their own lives, or to marry inappropriately and have children, creating even more misery.

    If your supernatural mythology were actually real, you’d be roasting in hell for an eternity for defending the church.

  • Diffal

    Wow! You have presented so many false assumptions and silly stereotypes in so little text, congratulations. I can see from your other posts that you harbour far to much anger to have anything approaching a constructive rational discussion, so I wish you good evening. If you ever want to use your potential for rationality or critical thinking there are many Catholics here who would be happy to respond in kind.

  • Jon Brownridge

     That’s all very interesting but you clearly do not understand the principle of two-fold effect as it is applied in Catholic moral theology.

    The classic doctor-mother-baby case (DMB) has been discussed and analyzed ad nauseum as the standard bearer of this principle. It is frequently presented this way: A pregnant woman is found to have cancer of the uterus which will kill her if it is not immediately removed. What is the moral position in this case? Moral theologians agree unanimously that the infected uterus should be removed, even though it causes the death of the child, or fetus if you prefer. The surgery is done with the intention of saving the mother, not with the intention of killing the child.

    You have some difficulty with the concept of ‘intention’, If you take medication for arthritic pain, knowing full well that it will give you a headache, it is quite a stretch to say you took the medication with the intention of giving yourself a headache – but this is what you seem to do. The same applies to the DMB case.

  • Jon Brownridge

     Some “degree” of intention? What does that mean?

  • Jon Brownridge

    It seems to me that the claim “This is a Catholic country” was nothing but a red herring to draw attention away from the culpable negligence of the physicians involved. Whether or not Ireland is a Catholic country is totally irrelevant to this poor woman’s death. Ms Halappanavar could have been saved if she had been treated according to existing obstetrical practice in Ireland. As Dr. Oddie points out, a “decision to induce labour early would be fully in compliance with the law”, and incidentally it would be in full compliance with Catholic moral theology as well. The anti-Catholic rhetoric resulting from this tragic case is uncalled for. This is a story about medical incompetence, not religion.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Another opportunity for Enda Kenny to defend his All-Ireland Bandwagon Jumping Title.

    Another opportunity to cynically exploit a terrible tragedy.

    God help and save Ireland from the evils of abortion.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Hear, hear!

  • Jonathan West

    A very small proportion of babies survive at 20 or 21 weeks and the proportion hasn’t increased much in 10 years.

  • Jonathan West

    Well, the classic doctor-mother-baby case as you describe it places the moral value of the baby as being less than that of the mother, since it is the mother’s life which takes priority over that of the baby.  

    If the baby’s life is of equal value, then it is wrong to take an action which kills the baby in order to save the mother. I’ve previously quoted stuff from previous articles here which states that perfectly clearly. Catholic moral theologians are anything but united on the justification for giving priority to the life of the mother. I’ll repeat the point I quoted earlier.

    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.

    An action taken deliberately, whose inevitable consequence is to end the life of the child can hardly be anything other than an action which “intends to kill the baby in order that the mother should live”.

    In any case, this distinction between intended and unintended consequences is sophistry. If I were to get into a car blind drunk and try to drive it, a fatal car crash is a foreseeable consequence, and you would quite rightly hold me responsible if it turned out that it was a member of your family that I killed. I’m sure that if in such a circumstance I were to try and explain that the death was unintended and I was therefore not morally responsible, you would want to punch my lights out.

    So let’;s not have any more weasel words about intended and unintended-but-foreseeable consequences. The whole distinction has been cooked up to try and get Catholic moral theology off the hook of its own making from its declaration that a human life at conception is of the same moral value as an adult human being.

  • Patrickhowes

    He may have been raised like that but he became full of hate and thought that he could dispose of others at will

  • Patrickhowes

    Look what happened to him when he forgot his values!!!Ring a bell buddy?

  • Patrickhowes

    That is where it has all gone wrong.There are those on hear who would love to murder priests as well as babies

  • Patrickhowes

    He´s invited his mob along.

  • Patrickhowes

    Big chip on your shoulder .Get over it!

  • Jon Brownridge

     I don’t agree that moral theologians are trying to get “off the hook”. We are seeking the truth like everyone else.

    But you are quite right about our insistence on the intrinsic value of actions. Several ethical theorists, not just Catholic philosophers, propound this view point. Unlike yourself, they distinguish between ‘results’ and ‘consequences’. If I open the window, the result is an open window. The result is part and parcel of the action. A consequence might be that you get a cold. If I foresee that consequence I am morally responsible for it.

    To apply that to your example of drunk driving: You seem to think you would be morally responsible only if there is a bad consequence – you kill or injure someone. I would say that driving drunk is intrinsically wrong because of its possible consequences.

    You seem to have a good background in these matters. Much more to be said of course, but it’s not ideal this way…

  • Patrickhowes

    God made natural law and not man.If he had planned man to have contraceptives then they would have been made with condoms in their hands

  • Patrichowes

    Yet you hate anybody who may have had a little more money than you.You are a bigot

  • Patrickhowes

    Rfereshingly honest Mary.Ireland followed the UK and look where it has gone

  • Jon Brownridge

     Additional comment:

    When the principal of two-fold effect comes into play, the primary purpose of the action is significant. Thus, in the DMB case as I described it, the primary purpose of the action is to remove the cancer; the result of that action is that the cancer is removed; the regrettable consequence of that action is the unintended death of the baby.

    Sophistry seeks to confuse and deceive. This is not sophistry. It is a sincere attempt on the part of moral philosophers to identify fundamental principles and to adhere to them..

  • Jonathan West

    I think you’re getting a bit mixed up about “intrinsic value of actions”. Either actions have an intrinsic value irrespective of the consequences (which is the moral absolutist position) or they have a value which results from their consequences (which is the moral  onsequentialist positipon). The consequences and their value can if necessary be stated in probabilistic rather than deterministic fashion

    To take the example of drunk driving, the moral absolutist position is to decide whether drunk driving is a good thing or not. The consequences in any individual instance are irrelevant. (In the same way, adultery is a sin whether or not anybody is harmed as a result.)

    The moral consequentalist position on drunk driving is that while in some cases you might get lucky and not hurt anybody, the risks are unreasonably high and outweigh whatever benefits might exist, and therefore on the basis of a probabilistic assessment of the foreseeable outcomes, drunk driving should be avoided.

    Note that this assessment leaves aside entirely the intentions of the driver, who wants and intends nothing more than to drive home safely from the pub. That intention doesn’t get him off the hook at all in either moral or legal terms.

    In just the same way, talking of “indirect” or “unintended” actions which just so happen to result in the death of the baby is morally unsustainable. 

    As a result, you have to take one of two moral positions in the circumstances surrounding the case of Savita Halappanavar.

    1. You regard the mother as of greater worth than the baby, and therefore actions that result in the death of the baby in order to save the mother are morally justifiable.

    2. You do not regard the mother as of greater worth than the baby, and therefore actions that result in the death of the baby in order to save the mother are not morally justifiable.

    My understanding of catholic moral theology is that the theoretical position is number 2, but that when that theory bumps up against uncomfortable cases, a few exceptions are allowed that in fact implement position 1. Words such as “unintended” and “indirect” are used to gloss over the fact that they are flatly contradicting their own moral principles.

  • EditorCT

    Excellent.

  • EditorCT

    Pay a visit to the website of Abort67 and view the graphics. Then come back here and tell us who is living in the dark ages. Me? My money is on those who think nothing of butchering a baby in the mother’s womb because that’s the mother’s “choice”.

  • EditorCT

    Any idea how many women and girls die as a  result of abortion?  Howzabout checking it out and reporting back to us? As you say, stats can be faked – and suppressed.

  • EditorCT

    Nasty.  I take it you are one of these “liberal” gurus of  “tolerance” ? Gerrourahere.

  • srdc

    Yes, Kermit Gosner comes to mind.

  • srdc

    You keep repeating junk that has been refuted by scholars.

    I wonder what made him pro-abortion and Euthanasia too?

  • srdc

    Nonsense. Only Catholics believe in God?

  • srdc

    You just do not read do you? There are a lot of pro-life competent medical staff.

  • srdc

    Go away bigot!

  • srdc

    The same old nonsense. Is there nothing original you can say?

  • srdc

    Yes, but an indirect abortion.

  • srdc

    There are many GLBT people who are pro-life and you want them aborted for who they are. Making you hate them for who they are.

    http://www.plagal.org/

  • srdc

    And it’s a woman’s decision not be told what her choices are by pro-aborts. That is not pro-choice.

    I am not sure who had 10 kids. Was that you?

  • srdc

    It’s more like the people who attack the church for not living up to a set standard, also argue not such thing exists.

    They are the REAL hypocrites.

  • srdc

    What does this have to do with abortion?

    Some people fail to live up to a set standard, Others deny it even exists. It’s the latter, I fear the most.

  • http://twitter.com/Croiteir Croiteir

    Child dies after being refused cigarettes in a shop – so remove ban on selling cigarettes to children?  This is the same logic. The simple fact that we can be sure of is that septicaemia killed the woman.  Everything else is conjecture.  If you read the Irish Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners you will find that section 21.4 says “In current obstetrical practice, rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention (including termination of a pregnancy) is required at a stage when, due to extreme immaturity of the baby, there may be little or no hope of the baby surviving. In these exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to intervene to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother, while making every effort to preserve the life of the baby.”

  • Patrickhowes

    He is not interested.He has become like a oiece of stone and so did the Nai guards at Auschwitz