Abortion and the Senseless Death of Savita Halappanavar
On Wednesday morning, several media outlets, including the Irish Times, the BBC, and the CBC, reported that Savita Halappanavar, a Hindu woman living in Ireland, had died from blood poisoning after doctors in a Galway hospital refused her request to abort the fetus that she was told she was miscarrying.
We do not yet know all of the facts of the case. Several inquires are being conducted. We do, however, learn this much from media reports. Ms. Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant. On October 21, she presented at a hospital in Galway complaining of back pain. Upon examination, she was told that she was having a miscarriage, and that it would soon be over. This did not happen. Instead, her ordeal continued for several more days. After a full day of “severe” pain carrying a child that was certain to die, Ms. Halappanavar asked that her pregnancy be terminated. Physicians were reported to have said that since they were in Ireland and the fetus had a heart beat they could not terminate the pregnancy. (In Ireland, the unborn have a constitutional right to life.) Ms. Halappanavar continued to suffer for a further two and a half more days before her fetus died and was removed from her body. By this time she was quite ill. She was then transferred to an Intensive Care Unit but she did not recover, dying some days later on October 28of complications due to septicaemia (blood poisoning.)
Since 1992 it has apparently been legal in Ireland to terminate a pregnancy that poses a “substantial” danger to a woman’s life. But there is quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding just what this implies in practice, since there are a range of ways one can interpret the notion “substantial”. This may be why doctors were reluctant to cede her request. Unsurprisingly, given the legal situation, it is in their interest to interpret this notion conservatively.
This lack of clarity imposes serious costs on women. It imposed the ultimate sacrifice on Ms. Halappanavar. Indeed, the costs of forcing a woman to sustain the life of a fetus with no hope of survival are vastly greater than any benefit (direct or indirect) one might see in sustaining such a fetus.
Three serious costs are worthy of note. The first of which is, of course, the cost of dying against one’s wishes in a way that appears to have been entirely preventable. Related to this harm and perhaps a consequence of imposing them are two further harms.
The first is the harm of forced intimacy. The American moral philosopher Margaret Little has brought this harm to light in her powerful and nuanced article “Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate.” Little argues that pregnancy is a kind of intimacy. It involves being physically intertwined with, “inhabited” and “occupied” by, another being. Most will agree that being forced to be intimate with another being is harmful. It follows from this that forcing a woman to remain pregnant without her consent is harmful to her; it is similar to the harm of being forced to be sexually intimate with another person. It is therefore wrong to force women to sustain unwanted pregnancies.
The final kind of harm is one that involves being forced to live according to a religious doctrine that one reasonably rejects. This harm was done to Ms. Halappanavar, a Hindu, in the most overt way. It was reported that she was told that she was in Ireland and that therefore she had to abide by the religion of its majority. Ireland is a Catholic country and its laws reflect that. But it is also increasingly a pluralistic and multicultural society. Approximately twenty percent of its population are not Catholic. This means that in its borders are people who reject on entirely plausible grounds its predominant religion but who are nonetheless bound by its laws. Forcing someone to live by religious code that they reasonably reject offends against their liberty and their equality because it involves coercing them by mechanisms that they do not see as legitimate. It does violence to a woman’s liberty to make her live by a religious doctrine that is not justified to her with reasons that she can accept from her own point of view.
It was wrong to impose these costs on Ms. Halappanavar merely in order to sustain the life of a fetus for a few extra days. No law should ask for such a sacrifice from any woman. It’s time that Ireland liberalized its abortion policy. The rights of women and religious minorities require nothing less.
1. Little, M. O. ‘Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2 (1999), 295-312.
2. Skelton, A. ‘Henry Sidgwick’s Practical Ethics: A Defense’, Utilitas 18 (2006), 199-217.