The Strange Case of Savita Halappanavar

Savita Halappanavar

At this point, the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar is “old” news, in that most people have been at least somewhat aware of of it. Most people in the Catholic and pro-life blogsopheres—to say nothing of the ideologues who oppose us—who will comment on it have already posted their preliminary thoughts. The forces at work to make abortion common now have their martyr—willing or no—and thanks in no small part to media coverage and concern, her blood seems to cry out louder than the blood of millions and tens of millions killed annually through abortions.

The facts are not all in just yet—in fact, very few facts have really been made available at all. This is perhaps strange, given the passage of nearly two weeks between Mrs. Halappanaavar’s death and the time at which the news of said death broke. What we know, nearly three weeks after her death, is that she died of septicemia in the hospital of Galway University—a state institution—about a week after checking into said hospital with complaints of severe pain. She was miscarrying at the time that she checked in—and was leaking amniotic fluid—though the baby was still alive. His heart was still beating.

The Halappanavars allegedly asked for an abortion. Though not being exactly well-versed in the difference between an abortion and the termination of a pregnancy as an unintended side-effect, we might well assume that she only wanted the staff to induce labor knowing that the 17-week-old baby would most likely suffocate to death shortly after the delivery. We are told that she was told by the (strangely anonymous) staff that Ireland is “a Catholic country” and so abortion could not take place. We know that not only was labor not induced, but no treatment whatsoever was given for septicemia, including antibiotics, for two days.

We don’t know why the staff refused such treatments to Mrs Halappanavar. The staff allegedly said that they were refusing treatments because Ireland is a Catholic country: this could mean any number of things. A man might say that before refusing because he was a sincere Catholic who for some reason thought that treatment would be immoral and not materially helpful; it might also be said by a surgeon who was sympathetic [1] to the pro-abortion movement and was wanting to give them a martyr. The effect has certainly been the latter, that the pro-abortion movement now has a martyr to stand behind, and that the result is that the world is, in the words of Hilary White, “baying for the blood of Irish children”:

Meanwhile, the bereaved husband, in-laws and parents of the young mother have retreated to India and are demanding that Ireland liberalise its abortion laws. This demand is being joined by the Indian Ambassador to Ireland, the legalisation-pushers in Ireland’s parliament, the secular media and professional abortion lobbyists, as well as, perhaps most strangely, the official opposition party of India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

This despite the fact – as has been pointed out several times in editorials, press releases, blog posts and hundreds of comments boxes both Catholic and non-Catholic – that abortion is not a medical treatment for either miscarriage or for severe systemic infections and no one has any idea whether Savita Halappanavar really wanted an abortion, or whether “early induction” of labour would have saved her life….

Even pro-life advocates have pointed out that the current law and medical guidance include the possibility of abortion in the “rare” cases where the woman’s life may be endangered. The University Hospital would certainly have known this, it being the standard of gynecological care throughout the country. Indeed, I was told today by a reliable Irish source that on the gynecological staff at that hospital is at least one “rabid” pro-abortion doctor who would certainly have made sure that this would have happened had it been medically possible. Eilís Mulroy has written in The Irish Independent, under the headline “Pro-choice side must not hijack this terrible event”, asking, “Was Ms Halappanavar treated in line with existing obstetrical practice in Ireland?

In light of these facts, it seems extremely unlikely, except perhaps in the dreams of rabid anti-Catholics, that the doctors at the hospital would have simply said, “This is a Catholic country, we don’t do that here.”….

It’s also strange that the Indian ambassador would take so sudden an interest in Irish abortion law, especially given Ireland’s much lower maternal mortality rate:

How much better? The WHO’s document shows that from data gathered up to 2005, Ireland had one maternal death. Yes, one. India had 450 per 100,000 live births for a total of about 117,000. Under India’s current law allowing abortion virtually on demand, about 11 million children are (officially reported) killed by abortion annually – just under two and half times the entire population of the Irish Republic – and around 20,000 women die of complications related to these legal abortions.

There’s still much of this story which just doesn’t add up. For one, how is it that doctors in a state hospital attached to a state  university do not know the laws of their own country? These are laws which certainly allow and even demand that a woman be given every medical treatment possible (excluding outright abortion) to save her life, even if it results in the loss of her unborn child’s life. To quote Irish Secular Pro-life member (and medical student) Evelyn Fenelly:

“We cannot know the all the details about her condition, treatment, and untimely death until the investigations are completed and the results made available to the public. What we do know is that the standard medical practice, in conformity with Irish law and medical ethics, requires that pregnant women receive all essential medical treatment during pregnancy – even if it won’t be possible for the baby to survive that treatment.

The Irish Medical Council’s guidelines on professional conduct and ethics clearly state that ‘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.’…

Miscarriage has never formed part of the abortion discussion in Ireland. Legalising abortion will not change the management of miscarriage. Miscarriage is a common and very sad event that is managed by doctors as a routine part of their obstetric practice. About 14,000 women in Ireland experience miscarriage every year. Half of them attend hospital for treatment. Our laws on abortion do not prevent physicians from treating these 7,000 women in whatever way is necessary. It is misleading to suggest that Ireland’s law on abortion is in any way responsible for Savita Halappanavar’s death. The Medical Council is clear that treatments managing miscarriage are permitted, and they do not constitute abortion.”

Note well that in Mrs. Halapanavar’s case, a miscarriage was underway. So, try as they might, abortion advocates can’t pin this one onto Ireland’s pro-life laws. Nor can they pin this on the Catholic Church’s moral teachings, for one because this was a state and not a private Catholic university, and for another because Catholic moral teaching includes the principle of double effect. Under the latter, treatment to the mother would be allowed, even if it resulted in the expedited death of the baby [2].

Unfortunately, Mrs. Halappanavar’s tragic death is being exploited—a personal tragedy is being used like a “political football”—to advance a cause which does not even guarantee that future Halappanavars’ lives would be saved. It is arguable that inducing early labor might have helped to save Mrs. Halappanaavar’s life, and even that it might have given the best—albeit very slim, approaching nil—chance for the baby to survive. As Christina Dunigan has commented,

Once an infection like that takes hold it’s very difficult to get under control. That’s why it’s important in an obstetric infection to get the baby out as quickly as possible.

I could see the ban on doing it while there’s still a fetal heartbeat if you’re doing an extraction abortion, which involves dismembering a live baby in-utero. That’s unspeakably cruel to the baby — and I can’t see how it could help the mother to have the baby’s body converted to lots of sharp bone shards to scratch up her uterine walls and give the infection an even quicker way to get into her bloodstream.

Inducing labor or doing a forceps-assisted delivery makes perfect sense. It removes the baby from what is, essentially, a toxic environment of infected amniotic fluid, and gives the child the chance to know being held and loved before he or she dies.

So this whole thing strikes me as just utterly bizarre.

Obviously, a dilation and extraction abortion was not considered—nor should it have been. It also appears, however, that simply inducing labor, delivering the dying baby live though barely, and evacuating the uterus of the other contents—the infected amniotic fluid and the placenta, which were the true source of danger to Mrs. Halappanavar’s life—was also not considered. Or more accurately, it was not considered so long as the baby himself was still alive, since the staff did in fact deliver him two days later, dead.

Legalizing abortion does not bring back Savita Happlanavar. Nor does it save the lives of any future women who find themselves in her shoes. Indeed, obedience to the laws of Ireland as they currently stand would require that she be given treatment for her condition, treatment which was not apparently rendered until much later. Nor does Catholic moral theology speak out against rendering such treatment, though we do not know if any (let alone all) of the medical staff involved in this case are faithful Catholics. By ignoring the relevant parts of both, the end result is one tragic, though perhaps preventable, death, no lives saved, and a martyr for the pro-abortion cause.

The people (and government) of Ireland would be wise to exercise prudence in this matter, recalling the old adage that Providence moves slowly, and the devil always hurries [3]. The result of legalizing abortion will be more abortions in Ireland—nothing more, nothing less. It may mean that the occasional Savita Happlanavar is saved, but it will also certainly lead to the occasional Kermit Gosnell or Scott Pendergraft, or for that matter the next Holly Patterson or Laura Smith. It offers a road to nowhere, paved in the skulls of the murdered unborn—to the tune of 125 million daily worldwide—and cemented with the blood of innocents which cries out to heaven. That blood never goes unheard [4]. In his beloved Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis warns us that the devil loves nothing so much as to win a man’s soul and give him nothing in return. This is as true on a broad, national or cultural scale as on the individual scale.


[1] Indeed, we can’t know the motives of anyone involved. It could be that the supervising OB/GYN is zealously pro-life, but ignorant of Irish Law and/or Catholic moral teaching. It could also be that he opposes said laws and teachings—it is possible that he’s run aground of them before. It certainly appears that Mr. Halappanavar opposes both, though having just lost his wife to what he perceives as ‘anti-abortion policies,’ it is hard to blame him for this.

[2] She was already miscarrying, and the baby died two days after she was admitted. Hence, treatment might have hastened the baby’s death, or it might not. We don’t know whether or not labor needed to be induced here, or even how long the baby would have survived if labor was induced. The record at this point for youngest child to survive early labor was at 21 weeks, fully 4 weeks later than this case. Indeed, National Review has quoted Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, as saying that

“The lack of precise medical details included in media coverage of the Savita Halappanavar case does indeed make it difficult to offer a cogent moral analysis of what transpired…If it were the case, for example, that she suffered from a serious placental infection unable to be controlled by other remedies, it would have been allowable to induce labor under a proper application of the principle of double effect. Such an action would not constitute a direct abortion, but maternally directed therapy to remedy the infection, with the secondary, unintended effect that the life of the child would be lost.”

[3] I am not sure the origin of this, though it is a favorite expression of Russell Kirk’s and can be found in several of his works, including The Politics of Prudence and Redeeming the Time.

[4] It is one of the sins which cries out to heaven to be avenged.

This article was originally published at Ignitum Today.

JC Sanders is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He has earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a visiting assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep South. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers, with a three year commitment to the Order. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”