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For Savita

Savita Halappanavar is dead, and she shouldn’t be. That has to be the beginning and end of anything anyone writes about this.

Savita was 31 years old, married, four months pregnant with her first child, a dentist who lived near Galway in Ireland. Last month, she went to the hospital with what she thought were back pains, but the doctors soon determined she was having a miscarriage. In these cases, there’s no chance of the fetus surviving, but the mother is at grave risk of infection the longer it continues. The standard of care is to do an abortion and get it over with as quickly as possible. But Savita’s doctors didn’t:

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar… says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.

This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.

Despite Savita’s pleas, her doctors did nothing, because the fetus that couldn’t be saved and that was killing her by its presence still had a heartbeat. Two agonizing days later, they finally acted, but by then it was too late. Savita had contracted septicemia: bacterial blood poisoning. She lingered in critical condition for several more days. Then she died.

Here’s what needs to be absolutely clear: This was not a fluke or an accident. This was foreseen and intentional. This is what the Catholic church wants to happen to every woman in similar circumstances. How do I know? Because they’ve demonstrated it by their own actions.

For example, there was this case from America in 2009, where Phoenix bishop Thomas Olmsted excommunicated a nun and stripped a hospital of its Catholic affiliation for performing an emergency abortion on a woman whose pregnancy was killing her. Other doctors at Catholic hospitals have also spoken out about church-run ethics committees that deny them permission to act in miscarriages like Savita’s. The only difference is that in these other cases, doctors kept the women alive by heroic measures or covert intervention. This is the first time I know of where a woman has actually died, but it was inevitable that it would happen. And then there’s the church-backed law in El Salvador that forbids abortion even in cases of ectopic pregnancy, or the woman whom they canonized for refusing a life-saving abortion.

Wherever the Roman Catholic church has the power, it bans abortion even in life-or-death emergencies, and women die pointlessly. It’s as simple as that. Savita and her husband came to Ireland because they had heard it was a good place to have a baby, but instead they were trapped by laws that still reflect the church’s brutal, callous norms. European courts have ruled repeatedly that women in Ireland must have the right to abortion when their life is in danger, but the Irish government has never passed legislation to implement that ruling. (Michael Nugent has a comprehensive history of the outrageous, sad, confusing situation.)

If there’s any good that can come out of this wholly unnecessary tragedy, it’s that it may finally spark a long-overdue reform. Protestsandvigils have erupted across the country, literally overnight. The evil of anti-choice religion is on worldwide display. But whatever changes may come about, in at least this one case, they’ll be too late.

Savita could have been any of us. She could have been you or me. She deserved to live. Instead she suffered and died, died when she could easily have been saved, and her death must be laid at the feet of the bloody-handed, gold-robed old men who run the church and the life-destroying dogmas they preach. It will be one more black mark in a very long and heavy ledger: the slavery of women in the Magdalene laundries; the institutional rape and torture of children that was worse in Ireland than anywhere else in the world; and now this. As angry as we are, we must be peaceful. The only weapon we have is words. But that’s okay. Words are deadlier.

Savita Halappanavar is dead, and she shouldn’t be. That has to be the beginning and end of anything anyone writes about this.


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