Callous disregard for suffering

Martin Hanson

COLUMN

Although my recent column was headed “The moral right to death assistance”, it was mostly devoted to exposing the speciousness of the arguments of Philip Creed; I said little about the Seymour bill. That said, to anyone who has read the Seymour bill, Deborah Scott’s statement (published January 12) that “there are no realistic safeguards in the bill” is self-evidently untrue.

Her own regard for accuracy was cast into doubt in her recent letter to the New Zealand Herald, in which she stated that “the New Zealand Medical Association has a clear policy against euthanasia, even at the patient’s request”. Perhaps she was unaware that, as Graham Adams has clearly shown, only 20 percent of registered doctors are members, whose opinions it hasn’t sought, and therefore cannot claim to represent.

Ms Scott’s reference to my dismissal of those on the other side as “religious zealots” motivated by “bigotry” can easily be shown to be false. It is a matter of history that the Catholic Church hierarchy — and I am speaking here of the “top brass” rather than local priests — has on many occasions behaved in a way that shows a total lack of compassion, or even regard for human life. Of the many examples, the following will suffice.

In 2012 Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old dentist in Ireland. In her 17th week of pregnancy she started to miscarry, but the process took several days. In the early stages it had become clear that miscarriage was inevitable and the foetus therefore doomed, and Halappanavar requested an abortion. This would have been allowed under the law if the mother’s life was in danger, but at this stage the medical team did not consider that her life was threatened. Her request was denied because, she was told, “this is a Catholic country”.

In fact the doctors were mistaken because she was developing sepsis, a life-threatening condition. When this became clear they administered an abortifacient, but the miscarriage occurred anyway. The sepsis continued, and she died of cardiac arrest. The inquest found that she died of medical misadventure.

Halappanavar’s husband said that his wife’s repeated requests for an abortion were refused because there was still a foetal heartbeat. Danger to the mother’s life was not clear until it was too late. But — and here’s my point — abortion had been initially refused even when it was clear that the foetus was going to die anyway.

Savita Halappanavar died because the abortion could not be carried out because the baby, though doomed, was not yet dead. As a result of Irish law (which, by the way, has still not yet been changed), two lives were lost. In a more morally advanced country the mother could have been saved.

And Ireland is far from the worst. In El Salvador, Malta, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, all Catholic countries, abortion is still illegal under any circumstances, even if it is needed to save the mother’s life. Rape, incest, severe foetal abnormality are no justification.

The most extreme cases have occurred in El Salvador, where women who miscarry have been given long prison sentences because they could not prove they had not aborted the child. In one of numerous such cases, a teenage rape victim was sentenced to 30 years in prison after giving birth in a bathroom. Nineteen-year-old Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz was convicted on the grounds that failure to seek medical help amounted to murder.

What has this to do with assisted dying? Nothing, of course. And yet, everything, for there is a common thread running through both issues — callous disregard for suffering by the Catholic Church.

Although my recent column was headed “The moral right to death assistance”, it was mostly devoted to exposing the speciousness of the arguments of Philip Creed; I said little about the Seymour bill. That said, to anyone who has read the Seymour bill, Deborah Scott’s statement (published January 12) that “there are no realistic safeguards in the bill” is self-evidently untrue.

Her own regard for accuracy was cast into doubt in her recent letter to the New Zealand Herald, in which she stated that “the New Zealand Medical Association has a clear policy against euthanasia, even at the patient’s request”. Perhaps she was unaware that, as Graham Adams has clearly shown, only 20 percent of registered doctors are members, whose opinions it hasn’t sought, and therefore cannot claim to represent.

Ms Scott’s reference to my dismissal of those on the other side as “religious zealots” motivated by “bigotry” can easily be shown to be false. It is a matter of history that the Catholic Church hierarchy — and I am speaking here of the “top brass” rather than local priests — has on many occasions behaved in a way that shows a total lack of compassion, or even regard for human life. Of the many examples, the following will suffice.

In 2012 Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old dentist in Ireland. In her 17th week of pregnancy she started to miscarry, but the process took several days. In the early stages it had become clear that miscarriage was inevitable and the foetus therefore doomed, and Halappanavar requested an abortion. This would have been allowed under the law if the mother’s life was in danger, but at this stage the medical team did not consider that her life was threatened. Her request was denied because, she was told, “this is a Catholic country”.

In fact the doctors were mistaken because she was developing sepsis, a life-threatening condition. When this became clear they administered an abortifacient, but the miscarriage occurred anyway. The sepsis continued, and she died of cardiac arrest. The inquest found that she died of medical misadventure.

Halappanavar’s husband said that his wife’s repeated requests for an abortion were refused because there was still a foetal heartbeat. Danger to the mother’s life was not clear until it was too late. But — and here’s my point — abortion had been initially refused even when it was clear that the foetus was going to die anyway.

Savita Halappanavar died because the abortion could not be carried out because the baby, though doomed, was not yet dead. As a result of Irish law (which, by the way, has still not yet been changed), two lives were lost. In a more morally advanced country the mother could have been saved.

And Ireland is far from the worst. In El Salvador, Malta, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, all Catholic countries, abortion is still illegal under any circumstances, even if it is needed to save the mother’s life. Rape, incest, severe foetal abnormality are no justification.

The most extreme cases have occurred in El Salvador, where women who miscarry have been given long prison sentences because they could not prove they had not aborted the child. In one of numerous such cases, a teenage rape victim was sentenced to 30 years in prison after giving birth in a bathroom. Nineteen-year-old Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez Cruz was convicted on the grounds that failure to seek medical help amounted to murder.

What has this to do with assisted dying? Nothing, of course. And yet, everything, for there is a common thread running through both issues — callous disregard for suffering by the Catholic Church.

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Murray Palmer - 4 days ago
I'd like to add to Mr Hanson's comments by pointing to recent developments surrounding abortion law reform in Ireland. In April 2016, a Citizens' Assembly voted almost unanimously to replace or amend the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which which gives equal rights to the unborn and strictly limits the availability of legal abortion in Ireland (although not of women travelling elsewhere, e.g. the UK). Of the 91 members who voted in the forum's second ballot, 44% voted to repeal or delete Article 40.3.3 of the basic law and 56% voted in favour of replacing or amending it (two members preferred not to state an option). Consequently, the Assembly's decisions will require a new referendum on abortion, and the Assembly has voted to explicitly authorise the Dail and Seanad to re-legislate Article 40.3.3. Perhaps a similar process as the citizen assembly could be used here to determine informed public perspectives on a range of issues, and gauge the distance these perspectives may have moved from those of an entrenched decision-making oligarchy?


Bernard Moran, Auckland - 4 days ago
Fortunately I kept media records of the Savita story. Kitty Holland, the Irish Times journalist who broke the story, later admitted on Newstalk 106 that she got the story "muddled" and it appeared there was no request for an abortion at all. This was after all the international uproar that an Irish hospital had allowed a mother to die, because of its Catholic ethos. The original story was "fake news".
As for the tragic El Salvadorean teenage mother getting 30 years, that is an obvious miscarriage of justice.
Bernard Moran, Voice for Life.

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