A frightening flight from truth and reason

In this morning’s array of reports and comments on the ongoing controversey about the sad death of Savita Halappanavar only one voice seemed to be crying out with any degree of sanity in the wilderness of misinformation spreading around the globe on the matter. That was Tim Stanley’s in his Daily Telegraph blog. Sitting on the fence on the question of abortion he wrote:

This post is neither for nor against legalised abortion – it’s simply about laying out the facts of a very tragic story.

On October 21, Savita Halappanavar visited Galway University Hospital, Ireland The 31-year-old dentist was 17 weeks pregnant and suffering terrible back pain. Savita was told that she was having a miscarriage, so she requested an abortion. The doctors denied her request because they said that they detected a foetal heartbeat and that Irish law ruled out a termination. Savita’s pain continued for three days and she eventually died of septicaemia.

Inevitably, this awful story has prompted demands for a rethink of Ireland’s abortion laws. That’s understandable and will almost certainly happen. Ireland has been liberalising for decades; Irishness and Catholic conservatism are no longer as synonymous as they once were. The European Court of Human Rights 2010 ruling on abortion gives Taoiseach Enda Kenny good legal grounds for a review of the law, and Kenny has branded himself as a critic of the privileged status of Catholicism in Ireland. Change will probably come.

But some would dispute whether or not Savita’s death is an appropriate catalyst for that change. In Ireland, it actually is legal to induce a birth when a mother’s life is at risk. Eilís Mulroy notes the following:

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.

Because Savita’s case is under investigation, Mulroy asks questions but, wisely, avoids inferring answers: why, in this instance, did the hospital not induce (as it could and should) and is its decision not to induce reflective of a wider institutional failure?

It is possible that new legislation is necessary to clarify the existing medical consensus. But it does not logically follow that Ireland needs a total rethink of its entire approach to abortion that brings it in line with Europe’s essentially pro-choice culture. Aside from the specific medical case for abortion in Savita’s situation, inducing labour to save her life would not necessarily have conflicted with Catholic moral teaching, either. In 1951, Pope Pius XII explicitly ruled that such a procedure “can be lawful.” If it is true, as the Halappanavar family claims, that the Galway doctors said they would not provide a termination because “this is a Catholic country”, then they got their theology unforgivably wrong.

Savita Halappanavar’s death demands investigation and answers. Aside from giving justice to her family, the implications of any investigation for the wider abortion debate are so wide-ranging that it is crucial that we get the facts unbiased and 100 per cent accurate. Alas, such objectivity is not always applied when it comes to media reporting of the Irish and/or Catholic approach to abortion. Indeed, much of it is misleading and unhelpful.

What is frightening about all this is the flight from reason and truth. Many of the facts surrounding the case are not at all clear but one is clear and that is that this is not about abortion at all. It is about medical practice in a particular Irish hospital and whether or not the medical team involved in this case did everything they could do to save this woman’s life which they were obliged to do by law and the ethics of their profession. Is no one interested in the truth anymore – either in Ireland and across the globe?

One thought on “A frightening flight from truth and reason

  1. Mani Kolbe

    You are absolutely right Michael. This is about educating hospital staff what is allowed and not allowed to avoid this kind of things happening again.

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