Clergy Are Not Doctors — and the U.S. Has Its Own Savita Halappanavars
The death of Savita Halappanavar — the woman who died of sepsis in Ireland after being denied her request for termination of a nonviable pregnancy — drew outrage and attention in the United States late last fall, but one crucial point was often missed. Even in America, where abortion is mostly legal, cases like Halappanavar’s are a known reality in Catholic hospitals.
Take one case detailed to medical sociologist Lori Freedman by the doctor involved. A woman 16 weeks pregnant with twins was diagnosed with a molar pregnancy, which can lead to cancer, and “didn’t want to carry the pregnancy further.” She went to the hospital with vaginal bleeding, but unluckily for her, it was a Catholic one. There, the ethics committee decided that a uterine evacuation was tantamount to abortion, because there was a slim chance one of the fetuses would survive.
According to another doctor who witnessed the situation, “The clergy who made the decision Googled molar pregnancy.”
The woman was transferred out, Freedman wrote in a recent study published in the American Journal of Bioethics Primary Research, “despite the fact that terminating a bleeding molar pregnancy is safer in the hospital setting due to a high risk of hemorrhage.” What Friedman learned tracked closely with her previous studies focused on doctors’ concerns about miscarriage care in Catholic hospitals in situations very much like Halappanavar’s. Many doctors told her they preferred to send patients elsewhere rather than navigate the ethics committee.