Dying for a Pro-Life Cause

So now we know they really mean it: They’d rather see a woman die than have an abortion.

You may have heard this story. Thirty-one-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who was visiting Ireland from India, was 17 weeks pregnant when she went to University Hospital Galway with back pain. They found out that she was miscarrying. According to the Irish Times, after spending a day in severe pain, Halappanavar started begging to have delivery induced, since there was no way the fetus could survive. She was refused, because the fetus still had a heartbeat. Here’s how the Irish Times reports on what happened next:

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.

This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.

She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.

The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.

In other words, according to the hospital’s interpretation of Catholic theology and Irish law, preserving a fetus that could not possibly survive was more important than an actual, breathing, otherwise healthy and lively woman.

How in the world is that pro-life?

Savita Halappanavar died because an entire country decided to sentimentalize every clump of dividing cells that might or might not be able to develop into a full human being. In fact, in this case, the clump of cells’ only actual effect was to destroy the life of its host, a real human being. As her husband told another newspaper:

How can you let a young woman go to save a baby who will die anyway? Savita could have had more babies. ... It has been a terrible few weeks, very hard to understand how this could happen in the 21st century, very hard to explain to her family. If it had happened in the UK or India, the whole thing would have been over in a few hours.

And he told Reuters, "I am still in shock. It is hard to believe that religion can mean somebody's life."

But it can. A friend of mine who owned and ran an abortion clinic for many years told me the story of one father who tried to storm the operating room and drag out his 14-year-old daughter, even though he was told repeatedly that interrupting the procedure could kill her. He barked, “I’d rather see her dead than have an abortion.”

Savita’s death was medieval. It resulted from an ideology so committed to the idea that human life is sacred that it ignores the reality of human life—messy, practical, complicated, risky, unpredictable, riddled with the need to weigh one hope against another. And she’s not a solitary case. Consider the death this summer of a Dominican 16-year-old with leukemia who was at first refused treatment because she was pregnant—and then, once she started chemotherapy, was refused an abortion even after she started to bleed; she miscarried and then bled to death. The Dominican Republic’s constitution declares that life begins at conception.

Our own now-defeated Representative Joe Walsh, the Congressman from Illinois replaced by Tammy Duckworth, said that such circumstances do not exist. He explained that medical science can always preserve both mother and fetus. Have fun in retirement, Joe.

I know that many pro-life people will say they would never intend such tragic results, that these are violations of their core theology. But death results from banning abortions. That’s why some doctors will risk their lives to perform them: Because without safe abortions, real women really die. Some die like Savita and the Dominican teen, denied life-saving care because someone’s idea of sin outweighs the value of a woman’s life. Others die because, in their desperation not to give birth, they will take horrifying risks, like Gerri Santoro, who in 1964 got pregnant by her boyfriend. She feared that her estranged and violent husband would discover she was pregnant and try to kill her. (Remember, 1964 was long before the concept of domestic violence.) So her boyfriend tried to give her an abortion himself. The abortion went bad; the boyfriend abandoned her; Santoro bled to death in a hotel room, leaving behind a coroner’s picture that, since Ms. published it in 1973, has haunted many of us. Such deaths are still happening in anti-abortion countries today. In Argentina, the health ministry estimates that one-third of maternal deaths come from illegal abortions. According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation:

Across Latin America … [t]he restrictions placed on access to legal abortion have not made the practice scarce. In Argentina, an estimated 40 percent of all pregnancies terminate in induced abortions. In Peru, that proportion is 37 percent, and in Chile 35 percent. Most other countries in the region, including Mexico but also the United States, maintain a 20 percent ratio—one induced abortion for every 4 live births.

In fact, if you look at criminal law as only one of many potential policy instruments to affect the social phenomenon that is abortion, it would appear to be a very ineffectual choice: where abortion is illegal, it is equally—if not more—prevalent than in jurisdictions where it is legal. Also where abortion is illegal, it is much more likely to be unsafe. “You get overwhelmed by desperation,” a thirty-five-year-old mother of ten children told me in Argentina. “You seek all the ways out, pills, anything. But if there is no way out, then you take a knife or a knitting needle.”

There’s a myth about abortion: that slutty women use it as a contraceptive backstop, running off to Planned Parenthood whenever they get knocked up. That does not match up with the facts. The women who get abortions have thought about it, hard. They have weighed their own lives against the potential life that’s dividing inside them. Maybe their contraception failed. Maybe they’ve made some stupid choices (which never happens to men, right, General Petraeus?). Maybe they’re with an abusive partner and are terrified that having a child will make it impossible to escape. They have abortions to save their lives—if not physically, then from disaster. 

An academic at USCF just released longitudinal research called the Turnaway Study, which looks at what happened to women who couldn’t get abortions because they were too far along—and compared their mental, physical, and economic health to similar women who did have abortions. You’ll be absolutely shocked to learn that the women who had abortions fared much better than the women who were forced to carry the pregnancy to term. Their mental health was better. Their physical health was better. Their economic circumstances were more stable. They had fewer regrets.

The women who had been unable to get abortions were more likely to stay trapped in abusive and violent relationships. They were physically less healthy. They were more likely to be stressed, exhausted, and unhappy. They and their children were more likely to live in poverty and to be on public assistance.

No one is suggesting that abortions be mandatory for women surprised to be pregnant. But for those who need them (for whatever reason), abortions save lives.

Savita’s death has spurred enormous protests in Ireland. The fact that the hospital’s failure to induce delivery killed a foreign national has brought the country international notoriety and shame. Here’s Reuters’ report of the Irish protests:

Thousands took to the streets to protest on Wednesday after news broke of the death of Savita Halappanavar of septicemia following a miscarriage 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

Activists in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, which has some of the world's most restrictive laws on abortion, say the refusal by doctors to terminate the pregnancy earlier may have contributed to her death.

"I was deeply disturbed yesterday by what Savita's husband said. I don't think as a country we should allow a situation where women's rights are put at risk in this way," Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore told parliament on Thursday.

Babies are adorable. Pictures of tiny fetuses are almost as adorable, tugging on our hearts. No one wants to be a killer. But for those first months, before “quickening,” that little blastocyst or embryo or even nascent fetus has no absolute claim on existence. Here’s who does: The living, breathing, walking, thinking, feeling woman. When there’s a conflict between actual and potential life, I’m on the side of the independently breathing person every time.

The only pro-life position is the right to choose. Otherwise, Savita—and others—die.

Comments

Abortions WILL occur, it depends on woman deciding or a collective gov't mandate against abortion, people forget that Roe Vs Wade passed and abortion is safe and legal and ultimately determined by the one carrying the fetus, as it should be, it is her body. If Roe vs Wade is reversed rich women won't be denied abortions as they'll be able to pay leaving the poor women saddled with no 'safe' option of abortion if it is illegal. Anti-choicers think they take the high ground by being anti abortion, as they think their god will reward them for their 'high' morality maybe, but the fact is, this is the 21st century , abortions are safer than giving birth. Historically abortions occurred naturally without anyone's choice. If abortion is made illegal women will still have them, they will just be unsafe and may actually kill the women hosts. It's time superstition and mythical religious beliefs stop making rules on abortion(not to mention that MEN should have no say, as they cannot get pregnant and will never face the abortion decision) in this, the 21st century. And for men who think they should have a say to abort or not, then transfer the fetus to their abdomen and let them carry it to term.

Pro choice Irish person here. Your article has some factual errors.

Praveen Halappanavar was a dentist working in Ireland, not visiting.

The law on abortion in Ireland consists of an 1861 British law plus a badly worded 8th amendment added to the constitution to forbid abortion except in the event the life of the mother is at risk. This amendment has never been legislated for and the only decision taken on it is the "X case" of a suicidal 14 year old rape victim who *was* allowed to travel to get an abortion. Two further amendments to try to rule out suicidal tendencies as a reason for abortion failed to pass (one narrowly!)

The doctors are working in a grey area legally. If they terminated in this case, before loss of fetal heartbeat they could have been charged with murder, according to Irish law as it stands.

It's barbaric. And worse, any efforts to amend it or legislate for it draws bajillions of fundie dollars from the US, swamping any hope of sensible dialoggue.

Thank you for a very well written article. I'm probably speaking for many women when I say that I have trouble sleeping over imagining what Savita Halappanavar must have gone through during her last hours. While many people from the pro-life camp may say they would never intend such a tragedy, they will have a lot of trouble convincing those of us who defer to the scientific judgement of experts rather than take charge of issues upon which we are unqualified to dictate. The "expert" rantings of Joe Walsh (being a Chicagoan myself, I've heard them all) are a prime example of not only misinformation and denial but the callousness that characterizes his ilk. It's a rare community in the world today that has no access to global communication, yet the religious right continues to maintain its arrogant positions on global warming, the earth's origin, the beginnings of life, the role of women, sexuality, etc. The tragic stories they never intended to happen are all available at the click of a key, but they will profess a superior knowledge to yours without ever having searched beyond their clasped hands for the truth. There are absolutely no ethical justifications for this willful ignorance - it kills, and I'd have to be just as religious to believe they actually give a hoot. Hopefully, the resulting backlash over this terrible tragedy will finally force the anti-choice political movement to concede how often it has been an accessory to murder - although, perhaps we shouldn't hold our collective breath.

Like the Republican party in the U.S., the Church will soon have to redefine its position on critical issues such as these, or face extinction.

Rest in peace, dear Savita Halappanavar.

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