Should Religion be mixed with Medicine?

Written by: SR Vasudev

The title is not a doubt which had sprung up suddenly in a fine morning. The happenings around us force to ask such questions. Such was the action of the doctors at the University Hospital Galway when they refused to perform an abortion on Savita Halappanavar, a young dentist of Indian origin even though her life was in danger.


Savita was found to be miscarrying and the doctors were unanimous in their opinion that the baby would not survive. Yet they did not perform the much needed abortion to save her life. Finally, the baby died and the dead baby was removed. After four days, Savita herself also dropped efforts to let her survive in a world without her baby. The cause of her death was given as Septicaemia and E-coli.

The reason given by doctors for not performing the abortion was that Ireland is a Catholic Country and abortion was illegal in Ireland. Their action has resulted in an international outcry against anti-abortion laws in Ireland and has triggered a seriously needed discussion on this matter.

The Ireland authorities have also come under pressure from Europe and other nations to clarify what exactly the legal position is. If Savita's condition was an obstetric emergency, then her doctors were under a duty to do whatever was necessary to save her life, even if that meant sacrificing the life of the foetus. The situation reflected like everything was in the doctors' hands and they had just let her go.

The laws which govern abortion in the Republic of Ireland are Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act, 1861. The European Court had in the past noted that "the grounds upon which a woman can seek a lawful abortion in Ireland was expressed in broad terms: Article 40.3.3, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, provides that abortion is available in Ireland if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, including a risk of self harm, which can only be avoided by a termination of the pregnancy."

At the same time, the Court also remarked that "no criteria or procedures have subsequently been laid down in Irish law, whether in legislation, case law or otherwise, by which that risk is to be measured or determined, leading to uncertainty as to its precise application."

As regards the Sections 58 and 59, the Court was of the opinion that those sections have never been amended so that, on their face, they remain in force with their absolute prohibition on abortion and associated serious criminal offences thereby contributing to the lack of certainty for a woman seeking a lawful abortion in Ireland. (Courtesy: Medical Independent)

The legal position being this, it brings focus to the lack of clarity with regard to the state of Ireland's abortion laws. Statistics reveal that these tight restrictions on abortion lead thousands of Irishwomen to travel to Britain each year for terminations.

In the UK, abortion is permitted at any time during the pregnancy when the mother's life is at risk or if there is a significant risk of foetal abnormality and within 24 weeks to protect the mother's physical or mental health or for social or economic reasons.

Ireland is not alone when it comes to the stringency. Many African countries have similar laws in place. Nigeria and Uganda allow when it is necessary to save mother's life. In Zimbabwe, the rules are more relaxed. Saudi Arabia too allows abortion when mother's health is at risk as long as there is permission from spouse. As a contrary, China, the most populous country, limits most families to one child and encourages abortion as a way of controlling population growth.

Surely in countries like Ireland where there is a lack of clarity in Abortion laws, doctors will feel the strong arm of the law looking over their shoulders at times of consultation when they are trying to discuss abortion issues with women.

This brings in a negative aspect that there do exist an external interference of law in the doctor-patient relationship. Also, the negative climate surrounding abortion in that country may influence doctors to be extremely cautious. But that should never prevent them from giving alternate factual advice to save the life of the mother, if her life is at stake.

I had a casual talk with my doctor friends regarding this. In their opinion, there is a pecking order for doctors caring for a pregnant woman. In that pecking order, the life of the mother comes first. Whether or not Ireland has an abortion law and irrespective of what that law states, it would be irrelevant, given the patient's present condition.

But till the time of writing this, it was not officially confirmed that an obstetric emergency existed. It was reported that Savita died of septicaemia, a severe infection of the bloodstream which can occur as a result of any cause from an infected toenail to a problem with a pregnancy. Also it is unclear whether the miscarriage caused the septicaemia or the other way round.

I do not encourage the practice of abortion, but in this case, when Savita's life was in danger, this doctrine goes awry. Whether enquiry would be conducted or the guilty get punished, the real loss is to the Halappanavar and Yalgi families. When the child was far beyond the reach of modern medicine, a timely intervention of doctors by way of performing the abortion could have saved the young doctor's life too. Doctors are equivalent to God. Their action role is to heal and protect lives. As in Bhagavad Gita, "Inaction also is an action."

When religion was mixed with medicine, doctors of University Hospital Galway ignored their action role and embraced inaction. Rest of the life, their heads should hang in mortification at this avoidable death. What a mixing choice of religion and medicine to obliterate medical ethics! Heartfelt tears for you, my sister. Wish dear, in your case, both never mixed!!!

[These are the author's views. OneIndia holds no responsibility]

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