November 16, 2012

The Life of the Mother

Ireland is the focus of an uproar surrounding the death of Savita Halappanavar, a dentist born in India and living and working in Ireland with her husband, an engineer. She was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway complaining of severe pain. Doctors conceded that the fetus was going to die, but because they detected a fetal heartbeat, and because as one doctor pointed out, "This is a Catholic country," she was denied an abortion, despite her and her husband's repeated requests. Two and a half days passed by, during which Savita was in agonizing pain. Finally the baby died, and soon thereafter, Savita also died of complications due to septicemia.

Ireland is indeed a Catholic country where abortion is basically prohibited, but twenty years ago Ireland's highest court granted an exception for cases where the life of the mother is in danger. The Irish legislature never addressed the specifics of how that exception should be administered by hospitals, so you ended up with a situation where doctors are extremely reluctant to act lest they place themselves in legal jeopardy.

Many argue that religion had nothing to do with it. They say this is a case of medical malpractice and that any reasonable interpretation of Irish law should not have barred doctors from performing what was clearly a necessary procedure to save the life of the mother. The Irish government has launched a series of investigations into the case. Meanwhile, activists argue that it is past time to clear up ambiguities in the Irish law and that Irish politicians should stop relying on the fact that Irish woman have much easier access to abortions in Great Britain.

These events clearly resonate here in the United States, where abortion was the center of controversies surrounding remarks made by a handful of Republican candidates. The push-back from voters has, I think, settled that question for now, but these people never stop trying. There is a small but persistent group in this country who, if they had their way, would allow no abortions under any conditions.

Savita Halappanavar's death exposes the contradiction at the core of the right-to-life movement with gut-wrenching clarity. Does the mother sacrifice her right to life the moment she becomes pregnant? Savita's mother went straight to the heart of the matter: "In an attempt to save a 4-month-old foetus they killed my ... daughter. How is that fair you tell me?" If you have a good answer to that question, I'd loved to hear it.

If God intended things to go like clockwork, (S)he surely could have created such a world. We didn't get that world. We got the world where things go wrong. Pregnancy is one of those things. The process of childbirth is just that, a process. Like any process, things can sometimes vary from the norm. When that happens, we are supposed to deal with it. That's the plan. We came equipped with intellect and judgment and ethics to help us deal with cases where things don't go as planned.

In my view, God placed that burden of choice on us purposely to inform our moral lives with the consequences of judgment. To dodge that responsibility by hiding behind the cloak of medieval theology is a choice that has its own consequences. In Savita's case, it really was a matter of life and death. Two lives hung in the balance. Only one could survive. Instead, both lives were lost. How do you not make the right choice is such a situation? You tell me.

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