The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar should not be exploited to sweep away Irish abortion law, under which she could legally have been saved

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.