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The Difference Between a Dying Fetus and a Dying Woman

By Valerie Tarico ~

In early November, a young Indian man in Ireland went public about the death of his wife, Savita Halappanavar. A week later, her name, picture, and tragic story were known by millions. Now the husband, Praveen, has launched a fight to ensure that no woman ever again is refused a lifesaving abortion. Her parents have requested that the Indian government bring diplomatic pressure to bear. Their goal is to clarify and, if need be, to amend Irish abortion law: “We lost our only daughter due to this illogical law…. If that law is changed, we will think that our daughter was sacrificed for a good cause.” “Maybe Savita was born to change the laws here,” says Praveen. It is, perhaps, the only possible sense in her otherwise senseless death.

Savita was 31 when she died after being denied an abortion during a second trimester miscarriage. As a dentist, she not only felt the infection in her body, she understood it. According to her husband she asked repeatedly for the medical staff at her Irish hospital to end the failed pregnancy that was poisoning her blood and would ultimately cause her organs to fail. She was told, “This is a Catholic country.” She had wanted a baby. Then she merely wanted to have less pain and to live. Instead, thanks to what Catholic ethicists call their “culture of life” she is dead.

Praveen carried Savita’s body home to India then returned to Ireland where he works as an engineer for Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices. Is he haunted, I wonder, by the irony as well as the loss? An engineer is devoted rigorously to evidence, to questions of what works and what doesn’t, to understanding the real world effects of decisions. His ability to apply the scientific method carried him and Savita out of India to a place where ideology rather than science ultimately dictated medical practice. Had they been in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore when her fetus started dying, she probably would have lived. Instead, Indians woke up to headlines proclaiming, “Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist,” and the evening news in their home state of Karnataka ran a banner that said, “Faith over Life.”

For years now, the Catholic Bishops have been trying to draw a moral equivalence between embryos and persons, as if self-replicating human DNA were what made us precious. If ever there was a story that exposes the vast chasm of difference between a fetus and a person, it is this one. Savita and her fetus lay in the same hospital dying. The fetus simply slipped out of existence, as embryonic humans do; in fact, as most embryonic humans do. Savita died like a woman dies. She felt pain, and pleaded for it to be relieved. She knew she existed, was afraid, and expressed her fear. She argued against the authorities who refused to terminate her failing pregnancy: “I am neither Irish nor Catholic.” And when she died, she tore asunder a whole community of people into whose lives she had woven the fabric of her own. Her mother struggled to comprehend: “In an attempt to save a 4-month-old child they killed my 30-year-old daughter.” The Hindu community in Galway cancelled the Diwali festival she had been helping to organize, and where she had performed classical dance with Praveen in past years. And when Praveen when public with their story, thousands  of people took to the streets in a cry of anguish that rang across Ireland and India.

This is what is real: A woman feels pain. A woman feels fear. A woman knows she exists. A woman wants to live. She will fight and plead even when she is being poisoned to death by toxins in her blood or in our culture. A woman is a daughter, a friend, an organizer, a lover. Sometimes she is a dentist. Sometimes a man loves her enough to carry her broken body halfway around the globe.

Praveen returned from India alone and empty handed and went to the press, determined that his wife’s death have meaning. In the weeks after Savita died, Catholic Bishops in the U.S. doubled down on their commitment to the very same priorities that killed her. Although Catholic directives allow some room for abortion to save the mother’s life, the most orthodox believers balk at this exception. They are deadly serious. In 2009, a Phoenix nun approved an abortion to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four. When the local bishop found out, the nun was excommunicated. Numerous conservative Catholics subsequently opined that the young mother should have been allowed to die.

If ever there was a story that exposes the vast chasm of difference between a fetus and a person, it is this one.The primary mechanism for the bishops imposing their will in the U.S. is through mergers between Catholic and secular health care systems. Any merger or partnership gives the bishops an opportunity to insert their “ethical” directives into the contract negotiations process. The result? More and more, American families have no way of knowing whether they are being offered state-of-the art medical best practices or only those approved by some church.

The time has come to question a system that funnels public money into medical institutions where the overriding principle is not science but religious ideology. Today, religious charities keep themselves afloat by administering public funds and providing services to the general public. In 2010 only three percent of the funds that flowed through Catholic Charities in the U.S. actually derived from the offering plate. And yet that small percent buys an enormous amount of influence. In a modern medical center it can give the bishops a decisive vote in our most private decisions. The bishops may get to decide whether an old woman exits this world with peace and grace or is forced to wait until God overrides every modern life support system. They may get to decide whether a young mother with a malformed fetus is saddled with a lifetime of heartache or has the opportunity to grieve and start again. They may get to decide whether another young mother lives or dies. That they have such power is wrong. A friend of the Halappanavars, orthopedic surgeon C. R. Prasad, visited Savita in the hospital while she was alive. Now he is speaking out: “This should never happen to another woman. Religion and medicine should never mix.” As one of the many women blessed by an abortion that let me start again, I could not agree more.

Savita Halappanavar’s father described his daughter as a “bold and intelligent woman with big dreams.” Bold, intelligent women with big dreams sometimes change the world. Savita’s chance to do that in her life is gone. Now that chance is held by those who loved her and by the many in Ireland and abroad who continue to wrestle with painful issues raised by her life and death. “Maybe Savita was born to change the laws here,” said Praveen. But maybe she was born to help change laws that kill and bind women everywhere.