On Oct. 28, a woman in Ireland died after being denied life saving medical treatment. Savita Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she checked into University Hospital Galway for back pain. The doctors determined that she was miscarrying. As a result, her cervix fully dilated and she leaked amniotic fluid for three days, causing her excruciating pain and leaving her vulnerable to infection. Halappanavar and her husband begged doctors to remove the fetus in order to save her life, but they refused, because abortions are illegal in Ireland. Despite protesting that she was neither Irish nor Catholic, she was denied the procedure. After three days, the fetal heartbeat stopped, and the fetus was removed. A few days later, Halappanavar died of septicemia, an often fatal form of blood poisoning. An autopsy confirmed that the infection was detected while she was still alive.
Constitutionally speaking, Halappanavar had a right to this operation because the pregnancy was life threatening. Or, in theory she did. In reality, the stigma associated with these procedures, even to save someone’s life, often prevents them from being a viable option. Instead, women take drastic measures, including travelling abroad to obtain treatment or undergoing illegal operations at the risk of infertility and death.
Giving a woman a life-saving procedure despite one’s personal beliefs has been done before. In 2009, Sister Margaret McBride, a nun on the board of an Arizona hospital, allowed a woman to receive a life-saving abortion procedure after learning that the woman would die if she were denied it. McBride was temporarily excommunicated from the Catholic Church, but the hospital maintains that saving the woman’s life was the right thing to do. Sadly, there was no advocate like McBride for Halappanavar.
It’s hard to understand how letting a woman die protects the sanctity of life. Because Halappanavar miscarried, there was no way the fetus could have survived. Even if she hadn’t miscarried, a 17-week old fetus couldn’t have lived outside of the womb. Any trained physician would know this. If the doctors knew these facts and refused to act, wouldn’t they be culpable for her death? If so, wouldn’t it make sense that they should at the very least be disbarred from practicing in order to prevent another death?
It’s unsettling to hear of cases like this because they demonstrate what can happen if we allow health care providers the right to deny patients medically necessary treatment on religious grounds. Though this may seem far-fetched, something like this could happen in the United States. Several states, including Michigan, have enacted conscience clauses. These clauses would allow health care providers to withhold medical treatment with immunity from malpractice, meaning that if a doctor denies a patient treatment on their moral grounds and something goes wrong, the doctor can’t be sued for malpractice.
This concept raises an important question: Is withholding medical treatment really worth the ramifications? If a doctor couldn’t live with the idea of prescribing a woman the pill for medical reasons, how could they live with the fact that their “conscience” could kill someone? Furthermore, if we allow the providers to invoke the conscience clause without consequences, what is to stop them from denying a patient other life-saving procedures such as an appendectomy or a blood transfusion on “moral grounds”?
According to her husband, Halappanavar was overjoyed to be pregnant. Sadly, she will never be a mother. Because she was denied a medical procedure, a husband has lost his wife, parents have lost their daughter and an innocent woman is dead. I can only hope that health care providers take this into consideration before denying another person a procedure because of their conscience.
Kelsey Trotta is an LSA junior.