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A Death in Galway

NEW YORK – The case of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist from India who had moved, with her husband, to Ireland, continues to reverberate around the world. Halappanavar, an expectant mother, died after her doctors, citing Ireland’s legal prohibition of abortion, refused to remove her 17-week-old fetus, despite allegedly acknowledging that the fetus was not viable and placing Halappanavar in an intensive-care unit as her condition deteriorated.

Indian activists are outraged. “While there is no single law specific to men that states when, where, or how medical care should be provided, governments enact laws that prescribe, confuse, and curtail a woman’s access to safe abortion services,” Anjali Sen, the South Asia director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, pointed out. “Right and necessary care could have saved her life. It is inexcusable that doctors, instead of undertaking efforts to save her, watched her die.”

Halappanavar suffered extreme pain on October 21. She was miscarrying, and, according to her husband, repeatedly asked for a termination after being told that the fetus would not survive. But Halappanavar and her husband were then informed that Ireland is a Catholic country; the fetus still had a heartbeat, so the procedure was out of the question. Halappanavar died from septicemia, which her family is certain would not have developed if the termination had been carried out.

Protests in Ireland have put Prime Minister Enda Kenny on the spot, with activists there, like those in India, arguing that Halappanavar died because of a theocratic approach to health care. Irish abortion-rights activists point out that, legally, the life of the fetus does not take precedence over the life of the mother in their country, but it does take precedence over the health of the mother – a distinction that American abortion opponents have long sought to replicate in the United States.

The Halappanavar case thus reverses the Western stereotype of Eastern societies as preserves of superstition and religious extremism. Halappanavar’s death resulted from the fanatical, atavistic behavior of a Western theocracy, while Indian protesters and lawmakers have upheld the scientific, rationalist ethos of the Enlightenment. We in the West are so used to “our” religious fanatics that we rarely view them as we do the East’s religious fanatics.

But Halappanavar’s death leaves us with no choice. A non-Catholic, slowly being poisoned by a fetus that was no longer viable, was asked to accept that care would be withheld from her because the Pope, acting on the orders of St. Paul, was staying the hand of her doctors. One can imagine the furor if a Western, non-Muslim woman had died because an Imam had refused her medical care for religious reasons.

The fact that the uproar has extended to India illuminates the many ways in which one can view abortion – even from a religious perspective. As I noted almost 20 years ago, the Western Christian/Catholic view of abortion is not the only religious interpretation of the issue.

In Hinduism, abortion is considered bad karma; but that is not the same as the Manichean view defended by fundamentalist Christians and the Catholic Church. Hindu medical ethics calls for ahimsa, or “non-harming”; that is, a doctor’s duty is to do the least harm possible in the situation. So a Hindu perspective on the Halappanavar case would dictate saving the mother’s life if the fetus were endangering it. In this respect, Hinduism resembles Judaism, even Orthodox Judaism, in which “the mother’s life is more important than that of the fetus.”

Abortion, while seen in a negative light, is not illegal in India, probably because it is viewed as an issue of personal morality – one’s karma shouldering the burden of what we in the West would call “choice.” (Indeed, the abortion problem in India lies at the other end of the spectrum: pervasive termination of female fetuses, owing to a cultural preference for sons, a situation that I would argue inflicts violence against mothers as well.)

The cultural battle over Halappanavar’s death is far from settled. Irish women are certainly right to wonder anew if next time it will be they who are endangered by a religious viewpoint that has nothing to do with their medical needs. But it is the outcry in India, where protesters are demanding that abortion in Ireland be treated as a private medical decision between a woman and her health-care providers, that may point the way ahead – to a global dialogue about the universal right of women to reproductive health and freedom.

Such a global dialogue initiated in “the East” would not be unique. The growing international demand for the rule of law and human rights was on display recently when Afghan lawmakers tried – futilely, but honorably – to explain the principles of the US Constitution to occupying Americans, who had sought to establish a system of detention without due process.

It is healthy when the West is asked to live up to its own self-image as the bastion of reason and human liberty. Facing up to its own lapses into fanaticism or barbarity would be a good place to start.