GUEST POST: Who Killed Savita? Part III – Medical Fundamentalism

Fundamentalist doctors vs. science-based medicine

This guest post is the third in a three-part series by Lynn Miller (aka VeloVixen from Daily Kos.) The first part is HERE and the second is HERE. She’ll be posting an epilogue here at Eclectablog tomorrow.

In this final part of Lynn’s series, she talks about the role of fundamentalist doctors, what should be but is not an oxymoron, and their role in the death of Savita as well as who knows how many other women around the world.



Oxford defines fundamentalism as the strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology. Fundamentalists see truth as unified, revealed, absolute, and inerrant, and themselves as the true keepers of the faith. Critics see fundamentalism as self-righteous and based on a very narrow set of principles.

Whether you take a fundamental or liberal view of scientific evidence affects how you interpret and practice it. Conventional medicine is characterized by a profession of faith in evidence-based medicine. Just like religious fundamentalists, medical fundamentalists tend to be self-righteous and to minimalize other interpretations (such as alternative healing and holistic medicine). The medical liberalist sees medical literature as a guide, establishing principles that need to be applied to specific situations.

At the International Symposium on Maternal Health this year, a panel of eight experts in obstetrics and gynecology presented new research on issues surrounding maternal healthcare. Although the symposium’s organizers had been involved in anti-abortion events before, spokesman Dr. Eoghan de Faoite said the speakers were there in their professional capacity and not to represent any pro-life forced birth position. And yet, the most significant outcome of the symposium was their declaration that prohibition of abortion does not affect, in any way, the availability of optimal care to pregnant women.

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Of the eight experts, three were from the U.S. When you review their work, it is clear each of these doctors is a practitioner of fundamentalist medicine with a forced-birth agenda. Dr. Byron C. Calhoun FACOG, FACS, MBA is a specialist in the management of high-risk obstetrics and maternal-fetal medicine and an anti-abortion practitioner. He is the author of “Perinatal Hospice“, a concept that he helped pioneer for end of life care, modeled after the hospice concept, to support parents with a terminally ill fetus in utero. Dr. Calhoun ‘coaches’ parents to sustain the pregnancy until the fetus dies in utero, upon which the fetus is delivered. Perinatal Hospice, as an alternative to abortion, in my view is a radical practice that preys on ‘Christian’ parents by forcing them to prolong the death process of their unborn child. Little research exists on the merits of such practice.

In a Pro-Life Forum, Calhoun advises:

Since most of these partial birth abortions, or ‘dilatation and extractions’, as proponents of the procedure prefer, are elective and not related to maternal health, attempting to defend their availability as necessary to save maternal lives is inexcusable.

In Savita’s case, ‘dilatation and extractions’ was a life-saving procedure she was denied because of medical fundamentalism.

Dr. Monique Chireau is a champion of abstinence-only programs as the way to “help teenage girls forbear having sex”. She is an assistant professor of gynecology-obstetrics at Duke University, a devout Christian, and a member of World Overcomers Church in Durham, North Carolina (a 7,000 member church that affirms “Overcome the World” as a means to defeat the spirit that is at work in those who are disobedient). Speaking before a presentation at a Mexican UN Delegation invited by Population Research Institute, (Founded by Fr. Paul Marx, O.S.B., a pioneer in the worldwide pro-life forced birth movement) on Abstinence and Teen Pregnancy, Dr. Chireau postulates:

Sex education and reproductive health as a methodology are shown to not solve the problem, should not be continued, and especially in countries where one peso spent for reproductive health care means that peso can’t be spent on primary health care.

Priscilla K. Coleman PhD. is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She has published a number of articles claiming a statistical correlation or causal relationship between abortion and mental health problems, difficulties maintaining committed relationships, sexual dysfunction, and psychological problems. Her research has mostly met with poor reception from her professional colleagues, and researchers have been unable to reproduce her results despite using the same dataset. The American Psychological Association (APA) has concluded that the evidence does not support a link between abortion and mental health problems.

Coleman is perhaps most well-known for founding WECARE – World Expert Consortium for Abortion Research and Education, an organization that “exists to enhance the quality of information, develop strategies for effectively transmitting research findings, and break down barriers to evidence-based medicine.” It cannot be by mere coincidence that all three of these U.S. ‘experts’ at the International Symposium on Maternal Health are also members of WECARE and other forced-birth organizations.
Dr. Eamon O’Dwyer, organizer of the International Symposium, is a professor at NUI Galway, where Savita was treated, and a member of the Irish Medical Council, the American Medical Association of Ireland. Still practicing in his 80’s, he was raised by the Christian Brothers and has been happy to defend them in print for sex abuse crimes against boys and girls raised there. He was performing symphysiotomies, an archaic procedure in which doctors saw through the bone to widen the birth canal, until quite recently. Of a patient’s suffering and pain following a symphysiotomy, he replied: “I tell you there weren’t problems. She’s been carried away by all this adverse publicity in the papers.”

The film “Mothers Against The Odds“, is a new documentary that focuses on the plight of Irish women forced to endure symphysiotomies during childbirth in the mid- to late-twentieth century. The procedures were conducted as a training experiment. Marie O’Connor, a survivor of symphysiotomy, explains that women from all backgrounds were targeted for the surgery, but young mothers who would have known “little or nothing about the process of childbirth” were chosen in particular. “The vast majority were discharged without any idea that their pelvis had been broken.”

These stories of medical fundamentalism are harrowing and fortunately not the norm. For every example outlined here, there are hundreds of thousands of loving, compassionate, and caring physicians who carefully balance medicine with compassion for the patient. Dr. Lissa Rankin, an OB-Gyn in Mill Valley, California began her medical career as a traditional practitioner. In her mid-thirties, after becoming discouraged with our broken healthcare system, she began research to discover why some patients experience miraculous cures from seemingly incurable illnesses, while others remain sick even when they receive the best medical care. Her research led her to change the way she practices medicine by changing how health care is received and delivered through collaboration, reconnecting health care and spirituality, and empowering patients to take control of their own healthcare:

My father was a physician, so I grew up in hospitals and scrubbed in on my first surgery when I was 12. Religiously trained to worship the dogma of medicine like the Bible, it was made very clear to me that I would be excommunicated should I ever turn my back on what I’d been taught.

Until my mid-thirties, I was a devoted practitioner of my faith. I bowed to evidence-based medicine, technology, pharmaceuticals, and the idea that physicians are gods with superhuman powers, who never make mistakes and should always be trusted. I believed that patients couldn’t be trusted with their own bodies, that only physicians trained in Gross Anatomy in prestigious universities had the knowledge and experience required to heal a body, and that a treatment is only effective if randomized, controlled clinical trials prove that the treatment is more effective than a placebo.

Then events happened that shook the bedrock of my faith. One of the gods I worshipped threw a bloody scalpel at me. Another sexually harassed me. A third forced me to scrub into surgery when I was vomiting and had diarrhea, after injecting me with anti-nausea drugs and fitting me with a Depends diaper. In the process of shedding my feelings of victimhood, accepting responsibility for my own choices, and taking charge of my life, I realized that it was my job to sift through all the dogma I was taught and decide for myself—what was true? What wasn’t?

If all of this is just a little too overwhelming, a little too much to absorb, just too coincidental, then you will understand why this story has captured my attention and consumed my waking hours for the past week and a half. I felt particularly compelled to write this series because I wanted to pay tribute in my small way to Savita and Praveen, to their child, to their families, and to the thousands upon thousands of women who have been harmed by the willful and reckless practices of forced birth and fundamentalism in the name of religion.

The most important lesson we as women have to learn from these tragic and senseless stories is that we must be in charge of our bodies. We must educate ourselves about our own health and well-being, and stand up and take charge for ourselves and for those who are unable. We must ask questions, and when we don’t understand the answers, we must search until we find the answers, never taking anything about our health for granted. We must teach our daughters, our mothers, our sisters, our friends, and all women what we know.

[CC Image credit: SaMi | Wikimedia Commons]

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