DUBLIN –– Expressing anguish and sorrow over the death of a pregnant woman in an Irish hospital, the country’s Catholic bishops said that pregnant women must receive all treatment to save their lives, even if it results in the unintended death of an unborn child.
The statement Nov. 19 came three weeks after the deaths of Savita Halappanavar, 31, who died after a miscarriage, and her unborn child. Halappanavar died after hospital medical staff determined they could not end the child’s life because they could detect a fetal heart beat, even as the woman’s husband, Praveen, urged them to save his wife’s life.
Halappanaver’s death Oct. 28 at University Hospital Galway has led to an outpouring of public anger. Thousands of people have taken to the streets calling for the country’s constitutional ban on abortion to be overturned.
In its statement, the Standing Committee of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference described the case as “a devastating personal tragedy” for the Halappanavar family and acknowledged that the circumstances of her death had “stunned our country.”
The bishops’ statement sought to clarify church teaching on the need for medical intervention to save the life of a mother. The bishops said they believe Ireland’s medical guidelines contain adequate ethical provisions to allow medical staff to intervene as long as necessary steps have been taken to save both mother and unborn child.
The bishops insisted that the Catholic Church has never taught that the life of a child in the womb should be preferred to that of a mother.
“Whereas abortion is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances, this is different from medical treatments which do not directly and intentionally seek to end the life of the unborn baby,” the bishops said in their statement.
The bishops also reiterated a statement made by Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to Catholic News Service Nov. 18 that Ireland is a safe place for expectant mothers.
Pointing to international health care data, the bishops said “Ireland, without abortion, remains one of the safest countries in the world in which to be pregnant and to give birth. This is a position that should continue to be cherished and strengthened in the interests of mothers and unborn children in Ireland.”
The maternal mortality rate in Ireland stands at 4.1 per 100,000 births and is among the lowest in Europe.
Archbishop Martin told CNS he believed doctors, nurses and midwives “set out always to save lives.”
“The fact that our maternal mortality is so low is a sign that there is something that is working well in the system,” he said.
Meanwhile, pro-life campaigners have expressed concern at the appointment of Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, head of obstetrics and gynecology at St. George’s, University of London, as chairman of a Health Service Executive inquiry into Halappanavar’s death. They cited a 2009 statement in which he argued that abortion should be a legal right for women.
Contributing to this story was Michael Kelly in Dublin.