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Woman dies after being denied abortion in Ireland

Published: 11:29AM Thursday November 15, 2012 Source: Reuters

  • The Irish Parliament building in Dublin (Source: Getty)
    The Irish Parliament building in Dublin - Source: Getty

Thousands of people have rallied outside Ireland's parliament to demand that strict abortion rules be eased after a pregnant woman repeatedly denied a termination died in an Irish hospital.

Savita Halappanavar, 31, went to University Hospital Galway with back pain on October 21 and was found to be miscarrying.

She died of septicaemia a week after being admitted, 17-weeks pregnant. 

Her husband Praveen Halappanavar told the Irish Times that after days of "agony" his wife had asked for an abortion.

He said she had repeated her request over three days but was told Ireland was a Catholic country and by law nothing could be done because of the presence of a foetal hearbeat.

"Savita [a Hindu] said: 'I am neither Irish nor Catholic' but they said there was nothing they could do," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

The foetus was removed once its heartbeat had stopped and Savita later died in intensive care on October 28.

Abortion remains an extremely divisive issue in Ireland, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country which has some of the world's most restrictive laws on medical terminations.

Despite a dramatic waning of the influence of the Catholic Church, which dominated politics in the country until the 1980s, successive governments have been loathe to legislate on an issue they fear could alienate conservative voters.

After several challenges, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that Ireland must clarify its position.

Candle-lit vigil

At least 2,000 people gathered for a candle-lit vigil to demand that the government legislate to close a legal loophole that leaves it unclear when the threat to the life of a pregnant woman provides legal justification for an abortion.

"My reaction was outrage. Shame that this happened in my country," protester Emer McNally, 33, and six months pregnant, said.

"It's scary to think that medical treatment was denied."

The news of Halappanavar's death overnight sparked a wave of anger on Irish social media, with more than 50,000 people sharing the Irish Times's lead story on the issue on Wednesday.

The organisers of the Dublin protest said they expected a much larger crowd at a weekend demonstration and called on people to protest at Irish embassies around the world.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose party has been criticised for delays in introducing legislation to define in what circumstances abortion should be allowed, offered condolences to the woman's family, but said he could not comment further until an investigation into the death.

X-case

In 1992, when challenged in the "X-case" involving a 14-year-old rape victim, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was permitted when the woman's life was at risk, including from suicide.

But an earlier constitutional amendment banning abortion remains in place, leaving medical professionals to navigate a legal minefield when treating pregnant women.

"What happened to this woman was nothing short of medieval," independent socialist member of parliament Clare Daly told the crowd. "We can't let political cowardice kill another woman."

The government says it has been waiting for the recommendations of an expert panel before fulfilling the European Court of Human Rights demand for clarification.

The panel's report was delivered to the government on Tuesday.

In the absence of legislation, Irish women are forced to go abroad to terminate their pregnancies, an option not open to seriously ill mothers.

"It's very frightening. It makes me feel it's not a safe country in which to have a baby," said Sinead O'Brien a 41-year-old holding a placard saying 'Never Again'.

"There has been a groundswell of feeling all day. I think something has to change."

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