Tragedy of Savita should not be used as excuse for witch-hunt


So many women I have talked to about the desperate tragedy of Savita Halappanavar have said, “It could have been any of us.” More than one shivered at the thought.

We are not used to thinking about pregnancy-related death, although our mothers and grandmothers certainly did. And yet maternal deaths happen, even in a developed country like our own.

Unicef rated the lifetime chance of maternal mortality in Ireland as one in 17,800; that is one of the best rates anywhere. But when that one is your wife, your sister or your friend, it does not make it any less catastrophic.

We simply do not know what caused Savita Halappanavar’s death. There are a number of possibilities, including unnecessary and dangerous delay in carrying out an evacuation of her uterus. But the overwhelming rush to declare with certainty that this is what happened is very frightening.

We saw what happened to Fr Kevin Reynolds and to Lord McAlpine when people were certain of guilt, so certain that they did not feel they had to wait for evidence. Yet there is no hesitation in some quarters to not only condemn the medical team, but to also blame alleged malpractice on their Catholic beliefs.

A large poster outside the Dáil this week presented this view at its most extreme. “Have the guts to end the Roman Catholic inspired murder of women.”

What is this but incitement to hatred? The poster may be extreme, but look at Una Mullally’s exhaustive chronicle of international media coverage on the Irish Times website. The dominant narrative is that Ms Halappanavar would have been alive if an abortion had been carried out, and that the reason that it did not happen is because Ireland is a Catholic country.

If it is eventually established that this was a case where a miscarriage led to infective complications, and it had nothing to do with Catholicism and even less to do with the current state of abortion law, it will garner no headlines around the world.

Possibility of baby surviving

If, as it has been reported, Ms Halappanavar presented with an inevitable miscarriage where there was no possibility of the baby surviving, there was absolutely no impediment in either Medical Council guidelines or in Catholic teaching to performing an evacuation of the womb. Such procedures are regularly carried out. Sadly, as the case of Melissa Redmond demonstrated, the problem in the recent past was that surgical procedures were sometimes offered in cases where it was not necessary. She was told that her unborn child had died, when in fact her son was perfectly healthy.

A review board was set up by the Health Service Executive, which examined 24 cases where a diagnosis of miscarriage was made in error and drug or surgical treatment was recommended to a woman whose baby was still alive.

Prof William Ledger, who conducted the inquiry, declared himself shocked that, in six cases, the women remained pregnant despite undergoing a surgical procedure to evacuate the contents of their uterus. Four went on to give birth.

Every woman I know, including myself, who began to miscarry, has hoped against hope that the pregnancy would continue. Sometimes the miraculous happens, the bleeding and cramps stop, and all is well. The cases examined by Prof Ledger demonstrate that, in some cases, a cautious approach is justified, and that devastation of another kind can happen if a surgical procedure is done too quickly.

We just don’t know what happened in the case of the Halappanavar family, when the infection set in, or how well it was managed. When I asked a senior medical consultant as to whether three months was necessary to conduct a review, she replied that a month should be adequate, “but the HSE moves slower than the Vatican”. It is not acceptable, for the Halappanavar family, the staff of Galway University Hospital, or for indeed the rest of us, that there should be such delay in establishing the facts.

Abortion legislation

It is sad that this family tragedy is being used to advance abortion legalisation. It is also deeply sad that outrage can be so selective. A doctor was struck off in Britain in December 2011 for botched abortions, including on an Irish woman who nearly died and spent two months in hospital after he ruptured her uterus. There was little or no coverage of it. If it had been plastic surgery, I suspect it would have been all over the media.

In April 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration recorded eight deaths from septicaemia, and two from ruptured ectopic pregnancies after the so-called abortion pill. Irish crisis pregnancy counsellors are alleged to have advised women to smuggle the abortion pill and take it without medical supervision.

These counsellors were also allegedly advising women to conceal abortions, depriving doctors of vital and potentially life-saving medical information. Where was the outcry? It is right that we should remember and grieve for Savita Halappanavar, for how her dreams were shattered, and how her life and that of her baby were lost. If there was negligence of any kind, those responsible should face the full rigour of the law. But let us not use her death as an excuse for a witch-hunt.

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