Some of you might remember the article I linked last week regarding the case of Savita Halappanavari, a pregnant mother who miscarried and subsequently died in an Irish hospital after being denied the D&C that might've saved her life. Father Burke of The Way Out There made some fabulous points, but the one I liked best was the Doctrine of Double Effect. It's the doctrine that always jumps to mind when cases like this crop up.
I remember first hearing about it as a senior in High School during a special philosophy class I took at Rosemont College (this and Eudaimonia are the two things I'll forever remember from that class!).
Anyway, I volunteered to explain to him what was going on when I got in front of a real keyboard (since I was still in Florida and only had an iPad to work with). This was my explanation, but I figured I'd share it here for anyone who is interested. I didn't include stories of mothers who chose to sacrifice themselves for their children, nor those mothers who beat the odds.
My explanation is far from gospel considering the facts haven't all presented themselves, but I think it's important to distinguish the difference between our stance on abortion as birth control vs. abortion as a life-saving measure when all other options have been exhausted.
Thank God for an actual keyboard; how my fingers have missed thee! Onwards with the explanation!
First, as I had stated in my poorly written teaser, the article you linked from Daylight Atheism is terribly misguided. Unsurprising since the author’s main objective is to belittle and scoff at the likes of Catholicism. That being said, I chose to ignore most of his pointless conjecture and instead focus on the prime source, the letter from the bishops. I also chose to explain a bit about the background of the situation, itself, as I've been following the Irish gamut for the last several months.
A quick foundation for those who care to understand what’s going on and why the bishops would need to respond to this situation: bishops are the general “teachers” of the faith. When they get together and affirm certain truths that the Church holds sacred, we consider their teachings gospel. This letter, though not an “official” Church document, falls in line with the same sacred truths the Church has always taught to be morally correct. ALL life is sacred, no life is more sacred than another, and life begins at conception. This is the same exact mantra we’ve always taught to be true.
The reason this particular case is gaining headway is because of the current troubles the Church in Ireland is currently facing. Abortion – something once seen as impossible on so conservative an isle – is now at an almost 50% acceptance rate. Ireland currently outsources most of its abortion practice to the UK. Obviously things are changing with the current thrust for easily-available abortions “at home.” Add to this societal pressure the fact that the Irish Church, itself, is coming off a terrible struggle with both the Vatican and the Irish government, and you’ve got the makings of something terrible – ESPECIALLY when you then tack on the international hubbub you create when the patients are well-off Indian natives.
With everyone walking on eggshells on account of the internal scandals and with the recent struggles of pro- vs. anti-abortion activists, the hospital staff screwed up big-time. I truly believe this was a case of well-intentioned staff doing something truly horrible because they were juggling politics, theology and medical care.
That being said, I don’t have all the facts. Neither do the bishops. Neither does the hospital, itself, as an independent team is still wading through the details. The bishops couldn’t offer anything one way or the other regarding what the staff did or didn’t do right as no one actually knows what happened. The best I was able to find was this article , but considering it’s only a very tiny snippet of what happened (and shows no real “behind the scenes” explanations from staff), I reserve judgement. My feelings are that the staff made a mistake based on ill-formed theology, but I won’t know if my feelings are justified until the independent study comes out. So try not to be too peeved at the bishops for not condemning / supporting the doctors / nurses when they, too, don’t have all the evidence just yet.
As for how situations like this are to be handled from a Catholic standpoint (since it’s what you had asked for originally):
I reiterate – Catholics hold that all life is sacred from conception through natural death. God created each life out of love and wishes that each one of those souls manifests His love on earth to His other children before rejoining Him in Heaven. That is the crux of our belief as Catholics and it is why we expressly forbid stuff like abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, etc. Yes, we believe He’s got a plan for all of us, even if we’re not able to understand it at first.
So when a case like this crops up… where a mother is struggling for her life due to a miscarriage of some sort… what gives? If both lives are sacred, but one is most certainly killing the other, what can we, as moral Catholics, do?
We have a doctrine of double-effect. You might actually be familiar with it from philosophy classes. St. Thomas Aquinas (or just Dr. Aquinas if you wanna skirt his Catholic roots) put forth that in some cases of extreme necessity, the death of one is a by-product of the other’s survival.
It’s the same in cases of self-defense. The Church doesn’t teach that if someone comes at you with a sword you need to offer your neck. You are morally justified in protecting yourself… even if that protection results in the death of your attacker. The difference is motive.
In self-defense, you are not aiming to kill someone. You’re not saying “My life is worth more than yours.” You weren’t hoping to commit murder. You were simply hoping to survive… to protect yourself or your loved ones. The double effect of the death-blow is your survival and your attacker’s demise.
See how that might be different from plotting out someone’s murder simply because he ticked you off at Wal-Mart one day?
The same is true, I would propose, in cases of miscarriage – especially miscarriage in early pregnancy. A mother who is going into septic shock should be given the proper medical treatment, and if that medical treatment includes a D&C, then by all means, the doctor is obligated to perform the D&C, thus saving the life of the mother. It’s the same for ectopic pregnancies. The children resulting from ectopic pregnancies are an immediate threat to the lives of their mothers and the ONLY recourse for these types of pregnancies is abortion. In such rare cases, a woman is not morally responsible for murder – nor is her doctor or nursing staff. It’s a double-effect. The mother’s life is spared, but the life she helped to create is unfortunately extinguished.
I fear that due to the current political climate regarding abortion (they just had a vote less than a month ago, I believe), the hospital staff may have made several grave mistakes in their fervor to uphold the morality they see slipping away in their country. Unfortunately, they failed to realize that in their attempt to ride the high horse into the sunset, they possibly committed homicide, themselves, due to negligence and pride. They may have misunderstood our teaching on this and as a result, two people were lost, a family is grieving, and the Church is once again seen as the bad guy when, in reality, the Church doesn’t teach that allowing the mother to die is proper when all other options aren't exhausted.
This sorta thing breaks my heart. So many people misunderstand Church teaching… so many people think they know how the Church works or what it stands for. Most people don’t. Heck – most CATHOLICS don’t. It’s why we’ve got folks like Biden and Pelosi running around calling themselves Catholics when, in reality, they’re about as far from Catholic as it gets. It’s why we’ve got staff in Irish hospitals making terrible choices based on what they THINK the Church teaches. It's why you've got crazy folks like Westboro Baptist Church calling hellfire on homosexuals and swearing that 9/11 was God's revenge upon us terrible human beings.
No one takes the time to attempt understanding anymore. So I, for one, thank you for at least reaching out and questioning that which is understandably confusing. If what those doctors did actually fits in with the husband’s account of what transpired… ugh. I can’t even imagine the repercussions. Enough people already hate Catholics because of misperceptions and flat-out lies. This, unfortunately, would be a decent reason to join the band-wagon.