“Irish abortion debate flares over death of critically ill woman who was denied an abortion.” It’s a headline that strikes fear and perhaps a bit of uncertainty into abortion foes the world over, a real-life example of the moral and legal dilemma doctors, hospitals, churches and families face when strict law meets heartbreaking medical circumstances. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a compelling one.
Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian woman who was 17 weeks pregnant, entered a hospital in pain and in the middle of a miscarriage. Days later, the fetal heartbeat faded; she died of blood poisoning. Her husband, who now grieves with her family and her native India, said doctors refused to perform an abortion, which he believes might have saved her life.
People who have never met her read her story, gaze at her smiling picture and wonder if it had to end this way. “In an attempt to save a 4-month-old fetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter. How is that fair, you tell me?” said A. Mahadevi, Halappanavar’s mother. “The rules should be changed as per the requirement of Hindus. We are Hindus, not Christians.”
In the staunchly Catholic country of Ireland, where the young dentist and her husband lived, the constitution officially bans abortion. But in 1992, after a 14-year-old girl, raped and made pregnant by a neighbor, was at first forbidden to travel to England for a legal abortion, the Supreme Court ruled the procedure should be legalized when continuing the pregnancy presents a “real and substantial risk” to a mother’s life, but not her health.
The young girl reportedly suffered a miscarriage while the case proceeded, and since politicians and governments in any country rarely take any bold and potentially controversial step, no laws that might clear up the confusion have been passed. Irish doctors understandably want some guidance. “The current situation is like a sword of Damocles hanging over us,” Dr. Peter Boylan of the Irish Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told the Associated Press on Thursday. “If we do something with a good intention, but it turns out to be illegal, the consequences are extremely serious for medical practitioners.” Thousands of Irish citizens are holding candlelight vigils and demanding reform.
To pro-choice supporters in the United States, Savita Halappanavar’s death is a logical extension of anti-abortion policy taken to the extreme and a dire warning of where state laws that place restrictions on abortion would eventually lead. Politicians provide the evidence when they parse the definition of rape and propose laws requiring women seeking abortions to undergo counseling, ultrasounds and transvaginal probes. It’s what happens when religion meets legislation in a pluralistic nation, and explains why a presidential election that was supposed to be about the economy became mired in reproductive rhetoric.
The Democratic Party convention was criticized for equating its support for women’s rights to a pro-choice view, leaving little room for pro-life Democrats.
The Republican Party platform supported an abortion ban. Mitt Romney opposed abortion except in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. In his vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan stated his pro-life views, conscientiously made, he said, as a part of his own Catholic faith. It’s a position that raises questions about who would decide what is and is not rape and when maternal health becomes the overriding factor, particularly in America’s own religiously affiliated hospitals. (In 2010, a Phoenix hospital lost its Catholic designation and a nun was excommunicated after a bishop disagreed with her judgment that an abortion was needed to save the life of a mother.)
But some pro-choice advocates can get trapped in the language of extremes, as well, as when academics musing intellectually write that “killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be,” a practice they call “after-birth abortion.” Their article says: “Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.” Anti-abortion voices needlessly latched on to those words as proof of nefarious, murderous goals, and the debate continues.
In Ireland, the country’s health officials and the hospital where Savita Halappanavar died are conducting their own investigations. Church, state and a broken family want answers that will satisfy no one.
Across the Atlantic, it sounds all too familiar.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3