The Difference Between a Dying Fetus and a Dying Woman

A young Indian man in Ireland went public about the death of his wife, Savita Halappanavar, and week later her name, picture and tragic story were known by millions. Now the husband, Praveen, has launched a fight to ensure that no woman ever again is refused a lifesaving abortion. Her parents have requested that the Indian government bring diplomatic pressure to bear. Their goal is to clarify and, if need be, to amend Irish abortion law: “We lost our only daughter due to this illogical law…. If that law is changed, we will think that our daughter was sacrificed for a good cause.” “Maybe Savita was born to change the laws here,” says Praveen. It is, perhaps, the only sense he can see in her otherwise senseless death.

Savita was 31 when she died after being denied an abortion during a second trimester miscarriage. As a dentist, she not only felt the infection in her body, she understood it. According to her husband she asked repeatedly for the medical staff at her Irish hospital to end the failed pregnancy that was poisoning her blood and would ultimately cause her organs to fail. She was told, “This is a Catholic country.” She had wanted a baby. Then she merely wanted to have less pain and to live. Instead, thanks to what Catholic ethicists call their “culture of life” she is dead.

Praveen carried Savita’s body home to India then returned to Ireland where he works as an engineer for Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices. Is he haunted, I wonder, by the irony as well as the loss? An engineer is devoted rigorously to evidence, to questions of what works and what doesn’t, to understanding the real world effects of decisions. His ability to apply the scientific method carried him and Savita out of India to a place where ideology rather than science ultimately dictated medical practice. Had they been in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore when her fetus started dying, she probably would have lived. Instead, Indians woke up to headlines proclaiming, “Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist,” and the evening news in their home state of Karnataka ran a banner that said, “Faith over Life.”

For years now, the Catholic Bishops have been trying to draw a moral equivalence between embryos and persons, as if self-replicating human DNA were what made us precious. If ever there was a story that exposes the vast chasm of difference between a fetus and a person, it is this one. Savita and her fetus lay in the same hospital dying. The fetus simply slipped out of existence, as embryonic humans do; in fact, as most embryonic humans do. Savita died like a woman dies. She felt pain, and pleaded for it to be relieved. She knew she existed, was afraid, and expressed her fear. She argued against the authorities who refused to terminate her failing pregnancy: “I am neither Irish nor Catholic.” And when she died, she tore asunder a whole community of people into whose lives she had woven the fabric of her own. Her mother struggled to comprehend: “In an attempt to save a 4-month-old child they killed my 30-year-old daughter.” The Hindu community in Galway cancelled the Diwali festival she had been helping to organize, and where she had performed classical dance with Praveen in past years. And when Praveen when public with their story, thousands  of people took to the streets in a cry of anguish that rang across Ireland and India.

This is what is real: A woman feels pain. A woman feels fear. A woman knows she exists. A woman wants to live. She will fight and plead even when she is being poisoned to death by toxins in her blood or in our culture. A woman is a daughter, a friend, an organizer, a lover. Sometimes she is a dentist. Sometimes a man loves her enough to carry her broken body halfway around the globe.

Praveen returned from India alone and empty handed and went to the press, determined that his wife’s death have meaning. In the weeks after Savita died, Catholic Bishops in the U.S. doubled down on their commitment to the very same priorities that killed her. Although Catholic directives allow some room for abortion to save the mother’s life, the most orthodox believers balk at this exception. They are deadly serious. In 2009, a Phoenix nun approved an abortion to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four. When the local bishop found out, the nun was excommunicated. Numerous conservative Catholics subsequently opined that the young mother should have been allowed to die.

The primary mechanism for the bishops imposing their will in the U.S. is through mergers between Catholic and secular health care systems. Any merger or partnership gives the bishops an opportunity to insert their “ethical” directives into the contract negotiations process. The result? More and more, American families have no way of knowing whether they are being offered state-of-the art medical best practices or only those approved by some church.

The time has come to question a system that funnels public money into medical institutions where the overriding principle is not science but religious ideology. Today, religious charities keep themselves afloat by administering public funds and providing services to the general public. In 2010 only three percent of the funds that flowed through Catholic Charities in the U.S. actually derived from the offering plate. And yet that small percent buys an enormous amount of influence. In a modern medical center it can give the bishops a decisive vote in our most private decisions. The bishops may get to decide whether an old woman exits this world with peace and grace or is forced to wait until God overrides every modern life support system. They may get to decide whether a young mother with a malformed fetus is saddled with a lifetime of heartache or has the opportunity to grieve and start again. They may get to decide whether another young mother lives or dies. That they have such power is wrong. A friend of the Halappanavars, orthopedic surgeon C. R. Prasad, visited Savita in the hospital while she was alive. Now he is speaking out: “This should never happen to another woman. Religion and medicine should never mix.” As one of the many women blessed by an abortion that let me start again, I could not agree more.

Savita Halappanavar’s father described his daughter as a “bold and intelligent woman with big dreams.” Bold, intelligent women with big dreams sometimes change the world. Savita’s chance to do that in her life is gone. Now that chance is held by those who loved her and by the many in Ireland and abroad who continue to wrestle with painful issues raised by her life and death. “Maybe Savita was born to change the laws here,” said Praveen. But maybe she was born to help change laws that kill and bind women everywhere.

Related articles by this author:
When God Was Pro-Choice and Why He Changed His Mind
Dramatic Drop in Teen Pregnancy Really a Technology Tipping Point
My Abortion was Different:  Why Women Shame and Blame Each Other
What the Right Gets Right About Abortion and the Left Doesn’t Get
The Big Lie About Plan B — What You Really Should Be Telling Your Friends
Righteous Abortion:  How Conservative Christianity Promotes What it Claims to Hate
Picture a Techology Revolution.  In Contraception.  It’s Here!

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author ofTrusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles can be found at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Christianity in the Public Square, Reproductive Health and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Difference Between a Dying Fetus and a Dying Woman

  1. Hank Pellissier says:

    Hi Valerie – – thanks for emailing me this great essay – I will post it at in the next 2 days. I really appreciate it! IEET is also continuing to post your essays, and your last one got a lot of hits there – congratulations! sincerely Hank Pellissier

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hank Pellissier says:

    here is the url – thanks!

    Hank Pellissier, director,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Peter says:

    I just read a report that Malala may stay in England. Apparently that Pakistani Government is taking seriously the threat by the Taliban to do it again. Her father has been offered a job at the Pakistani consulate in Birmingham. I hope she does and can get on with her life. Unfortunately this means the Taliban won and the madness continues.


  4. Gary Tribble says:

    “Let those who have eyes see and let those who have ears hear.” It doesn’t get any more clear than this.


  5. Mriana says:

    Her death was senseless. The baby was dying anyway, but her life could have been saved. Ireland has some really stupid laws, which in the end do nothing but harm and kill women.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. irascibleexaminator says:

    I have noticed that the difference between a conservative and a non conservative rotates around the first person pronoun. My, me or I . It is always MY beliefs, MY sensibilities, MY NEEDS that take precedence, as opposed to THEIR beliefs, THEIR sensibilities, THEIR / Her needs as in this case.
    Mriana it isn’t just her death that’s senseless it’s the hypocrisy of the Catholic CHURCH ignoring their own belief tenants and the subsequent narcissistic delusion that they can play God, that sickens me almost as much.
    side note : In research for this response I gave up after 73 verses in *their* Bible this contravenes.

    As I say to my virginal Nun sister in law, when she get on her moral high horse ‘Sanctimonious’… “if you don’t want an abortion …don’t have one . You don’t favour gay marriage? then don’t marry a member of the same gender. By the way how exactly are those who do choose either denying, imposing on your rights?
    I seem to remember that God wants people to have to choice to follow him of free will. So what does that make you for denying God’s will ? Anyway be sure to let me know if the ungodly make either mandatory.

    For the record I’m not perfect but at least I don’t enforce dogma I can’t observe.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. windotoucher says:

    Thank you for retelling this tragic story so that it will stick with me and influence my already strong convictions that science trumps ideology. I will contact President Obama again to remind him that he stated, right after his first inauguration, that his administration would base policy on science rather than ideology. I have not yet seen sufficient evidence that he has stuck to this promise.


  8. Why on earth didn’t they get her out of the Country? It’s a short ferry ride to Liverpool or clandestinely, by a privately hired fishing trawler if the accepted mode of travel is denied her. I can’t imagine that she could be held in the Country against her will.

    Liked by 1 person

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  10. Lowell Bushey says:

    I’m glad that someone finally took the gloves off and called this situation for what it is: MURDER. Unfortunately, only the foreign press did that.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Michelle J says:

    Thanks Valerie, I had not even heard this story before. I will definitely pass this on to others as I always do! Thanks again for all you do!

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. This was an excellent article, and having just recently found your blog, I might have missed it had you not re-posted the link in your latest blog posting. As I read through it, I was reminded of an article by James W. Prescott, Ph.D. — “Violence Against Women: Philosophical and Religious Foundations of Gender Morality”. He writes:

    “The dualistic philosophy and theistic theology of gender morality, has had and continues to have devastating consequences for woman and her children. As death of the body is necessary in some religions for salvation, re. the Crucifixion, so too is the death of woman (and her body) necessary for the death of sin and wickedness.”

    It seems obvious to me that their lack of empathy for women stems from the belief that women are the ‘seed of Eve’, the first to ‘sin’, and ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus. The Apostle Paul makes that abundantly clear in 1 Timothy. Then we have Tertullian, the early church father who played a primary theological role in Western Christianity. He wrote:

    “In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell.”

    It seems apparent by their mandates and actions that the RCC wants women to suffer. Valarie, thank you for putting a spotlight on such important issues, and for your advocacy work. It’s a pleasure to meet you.


    Liked by 1 person

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