The tragic news of the death of an expectant mother in Ireland has drawn worldwide attention in a way, it is safe to say, deaths of other expectant mothers (like Tonya Reaves, who died as a result of a botched abortion at Planned Parenthood last July) have not. The death of Savita Halappanavar is worthy of the closest scrutiny, because she and her family, as well as every expectant mother in Ireland, has a right to know if the sequence of events that led to her death was a case of medical malpractice or neglect, a result of the Irish law on abortion, a result of misapplication of that law, an admixture of these factors – or even unavoidable.
The case is ironic because the Republic of Ireland, which allows measures necessary to save the life of the mother but requires concomitant efforts to do everything possible to preserve the life of the child in dire circumstances, has among the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world. Halappanavar reportedly died of a massive infection associated with a miscarriage her doctors allegedly refused to evacuate because the heart of the 17-week-old developing child was still beating.
“Campaigners,” as the media in the United Kingdom refer to issue advocacy groups, are exploiting Halappanavar’s death as justification not only for clarifying Irish law but also for legalizing abortion in Ireland, and even, as a writer for The Daily Kos suggested, for questioning the mission of Catholic hospitals in the United States. In so doing, they reveal an agenda that is about far more than any medical misjudgments or misapplications of the law that may have occurred at Galway University Hospital.
In the midst of such political furor, an appeal to reason and reserved judgment may fall on many deaf ears. But it’s vital to know exactly what medical judgments were made in this young woman’s case, who made those judgments, and based on what information about her condition and treatment. The author of this blog does not pretend to know where the full review of this case will lead, but it should certainly be allowed to run its course before “campaigners,” or certainly American activists at very distant remove and of previously established opinion, impose reforms inimical to the health of mothers and babies alike. The logic of the posse can seem reasonable in polarized light, but its rapid execution can be devastating to the innocent.
Medical and legal experts in Ireland and elsewhere are gaining access to the details of this case, with the goal of ensuring that the facts are fully known and that the canons of medicine – “First, do no harm” – are served. Patience in that effort is what is needed now, not the violence that can flow from anger in the streets.