By now, we’ve all heard the horrific story of Savita Halappanavar. She was a thirty-one year old woman from India who was visiting Ireland with her husband when she miscarried her pregnancy. Even though her fetus was not viable, even though abortion is legal in Ireland to save the life of the mother, and even though she was in grave danger, the hospital denied her an abortion on religious grounds. Savita spent days in agony and died of septicaemia on October 28, 2012.
I’m no religious scholar. I’m not even religious. But there’s something to be said for a secular person taking the time to understand what scripture actually says – especially when that scripture is being used to justify appalling, medieval medical decisions. So I spent a lunch hour with my dad, some folks from his synagogue, and their rabbi while they discussed the topic.
We spent the bulk of our time looking at Exodus 21: 22-25, which reads:
When [two or more parties] fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
The rabbi explained that Jewish law only considers the killing of the mother, rather than the miscarriage of her pregnancy, to be a capital crime. The loss of the pregnancy should be treated the same as any other physical injury and punished through monetary remuneration rather than death. So the natural conclusion is that while a pregnancy has value, it is not equal to that of a human life.
So, if you ever find yourself begging for an abortion to save your (or someone else’s) life, you might want to pull out that handy bit of scripture. I don’t want to hazard a guess as to whether arguing the issue on scriptural grounds would have saved Savita’s life. And I certainly don’t think that anyone should have to fall back on religious arguments to get medical care, especially in the 21st century. But it can never hurt to be too careful in a world where pregnant women are so devalued.