Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

We should not rush to judgement on Savita's death

More than 30 years ago, in 1976, I suffered a miscarriage, in Oxford where I went for a meeting of the British-Irish Association. I was whisked into the John Radcliffe Hospital, which specialises in gynaecology and obstetrics.

It was obvious that a miscarriage was occurring - in the early weeks of a pregnancy - but for several days the hospital simply kept me in bed, monitoring my blood pressure and temperature. Then, after about three days, they performed a 'D-amp;C', which clears out the womb of any 'products of conception'. In effect, 'dilation and curettage' terminates anything that remains of a pregnancy.

The doctors at Galway University Hospital seem to have followed a similar approach in the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar, who lost her life. But until we know whether a medical termination of the pregnancy would have saved Savita's life, or halted the infection of septicaemia and E coli, I cannot see how we can judge those Galway doctors; or invite a global wave of condemnation of Irish medical practice, as has happened in the worldwide media.

The strong public reaction to Savita's death is understandable, and commendable - a young woman should not lose her life from a maternal death in this day and age.

If there is a lack of clarity about the law, which should direct a physician to do all he, or she, can to save the life of the presenting patient, then that legal loophole should be corrected. Politicians should not be cowardly about this, and neither should doctors and medical staff: they must perform their duty to the patient.

And I have sufficient confidence in the Irish democratic system to believe that Savita's death will be truthfully investigated and if, as her husband and family believe, it was caused by a failure to terminate the pregnancy medically, then, that will be addressed.

The print media throughout Ireland has been excellent in the coverage of this case.It has been an open debate, and that is exactly the way any democracy should proceed. Yes, different people have different 'agendas', but that is what it means to co-exist in a pluralist society.

Any society has to have a discussion with itself about what it believes in; what it thinks is important; what it thinks is right; where the compromises may be made; and what should be done in a legal and ethical context.

In some other societies - and the UK comes to mind here - values tend to be set by a cultural elite who 'know better' than the common person.

The BBC's problems are to some degree rooted in this mandarin cast of mind. In politics, legislation is passed which does not always resonate with the values of most ordinary people - the British system abhors referenda partly to keep an elite in control. But in the Republic, the debate about values is out in the open, everyone has their say, and the standard of debate is, on the whole, serious and well-informed.

It is unfair that this aspect of Irish democracy is seldom reported in the global media, which has rushed to superficial judgment about pregnant women in Ireland dying for want of abortion legislation - almost never adding that maternal deaths in Ireland are remarkably low, and dramatically lower than in India, which is presently castigating Ireland for alleged brutality.

The primary fact to be established is whether her death could have been prevented.

And I hope that eventually Savita's family will come to see that Irish society does try to move forward by examining the facts and trying to do what is right, what is ethical and what is best medical practice.

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