Some days ago, Kate Blanchard, a friend of mine from our days in graduate school at Duke who is trained in theological ethics, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “My Two Abortions,” in which she related her experiences of an ectopic pregnancy and a fetus which (who?) died in utero to attack pro-lifers for their intransigence on life issues in light of the obviously ambiguous status of the fetus. The piece is all the sharper for her use of the claim that the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar resulted directly from the Catholic Church’s stance on life issues enshrined in Irish law: had Halappanavar been permitted an abortion, pro-abortion campaigners argue, she would have lived.
It is not at all clear that an abortion would have saved Halappanavar, as the facts are in serious dispute, and so it is upsetting to see Halappanavar’s death exploited this way. It is also disconcerting that my friend Kate misunderstands Catholic teaching in this area, and so I’m very grateful another friend of mine and Kate’s, also from Duke, Holly Taylor Coolman, has responded:
Surely the most important element of Kate’s essay, though, has to do with the death of Savita Halappanavar, and its implications. Here, especially, I want to note what seem to me to be two problems in the way Kate links her experiences to this case. First is that neither of the decisions Kate made—one that ended an ectopic pregnancy or one that induced labor after the fetus had already died—should be understood as opposed to pro-life Catholic teaching. In fact, neither should be understood as an abortion at all. Kate implies that she was very lucky to have lived in a country that allows abortions, but the fact of the matter is that she could have received exactly the same medical care in Ireland—or in any Catholic hospital here in the U.S.
Most importantly, there is simply no clear evidence that Halappanavar’s terrible death, either, had anything at all to do with Ireland’s restriction of abortion. Halappanavar was suffering from a condition called septicaemia, a condition that would not have been ameliorated by an abortion. Just a few days after her initial reporting of the story, the lead reporter herself allowed that “the fact that Savita had been refused a termination was a factor in her death has yet to be established.” Dr. Hema Divakar, president-elect of the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India has taken a stronger position: “Even if the law permitted it, it is not as if her life would have been saved because of termination.” Dr. James Clair, microbiologist has offered an alternate explanation, suggesting that “the problem was an unforeseen… infection rather than an issue of obstetric mishandling.”
Catholic teaching not only allows for, but demands, medical intervention to save the life of an expectant mother. It is true that acting on a commitment to both mother and baby can, in a few cases, be complicated and difficult. It appears that in Halappanavar’s case, though, doctor may simply have been unable successfully to intervene. In any case, it is worth it to learn more before using this case to get traction in the pro-life / pro-choice debates.
The experiences that Kate describes in her essay were painful, on more level than one. I wish now, as I wished then, that she might somehow have been spared them altogether. She survived, though—and thrived. My own conviction continue to be that protecting and caring for all human life is the surest route to the same outcome for other mothers, and for their children.