By Adelaide Mena
A tragic death of a mother in Italy after late-term pregnancy complications and miscarriage is being pinned on the doctor’s refusal to perform a late-term abortion, despite appearances that the mother died of complications of the miscarriage.
The case is complex, John F. Brehany, PhD, an ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told EWTN News in a statement. “At a minimum, there seems to be a profound disagreement about what was said between the physician and the hospital, and the patient and her family.
“Hopefully, this tragedy will not be exploited to promote abortion on demand or to undermine respect for the rights of conscience of physicians and other healthcare providers.”
The family of Valentina Milluzzo, who died at Cannizzaro hospital in the Sicilian city of Catania, allege that she passed away because her doctor was a “conscientious objector” to abortion and thus did not perform an abortion after she suffered pregnancy complications.
The hospital denies that this is the case, and the head of the hospital, Angelo Pellicano, told Ansa news agency that the doctor did not have a conscientious objection to abortion, but that there was a spontaneous miscarriage that was forced by serious circumstances.
Milluzzo went into labor early, at 19 weeks, pregnant with twins. After two weeks of monitoring in the hospital, the condition of Miluzzo and of the babies worsened, and her blood pressure dropped.
According to the family’s legal representation, doctors refused to abort the struggling babies or otherwise intervene in order to save the mother. Within hours, both fetuses had died.
As the night progressed, the mother contracted an infection, her health continued to decline, and she was taken into intensive care. She died Oct. 16.
Pellicano told Ansa he disputes the family’s account and that, because the children’s death was a natural miscarriage, conscientious objection does not apply. “There was no conscientious objection on behalf of the doctor that intervened in this case because there was no voluntary termination of the pregnancy,” he said.
The prosecutor in Catania has stalled Milluzzo’s burial until an autopsy can be performed and further investigation can be conducted.
Brehany said that while the facts underlying the case are still unclear, the ethical principles surround the case are knowable.
“These two things are clear,” he stated. “It would’ve been unethical for the physicians to undertake an abortion – to directly kill one or both of the twins – to save the life of the mother.” Furthermore, “it is right and good that the physician involved made a conscientious judgment in this regard, and that judgment of conscience should be honored.”
“What is not clear, ethically speaking, is when the physician knew, or could have known, when the pre-born children had died. This is ethically relevant because, once fetal demise was established, there would be no ethical bar to inducing labor or undertaking other actions to evacuate the uterus and save the mother from infection,” he continued.
There is concern that the incident could be used to push for expanded abortion access in the country.
In Italy, abortion is permitted after 12 weeks of pregnancy only in order to save the life of the mother.
In the Republic of Ireland, legal access to abortion was expanded in 2013 after controversy over the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was admitted to a Galway hospital while miscarrying.
She reportedly asked for an abortion, which doctors refused because the baby still had a heartbeat. Halappanavar later died of a severe antibiotic-resistant infection following her miscarriage.