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Irish abortion debate inflamed by pregnant woman's death

The death of Savita Halappanavar, who was reportedly denied an abortion when miscarrying, has upped the urgency of Ireland's current review of its near-total abortion ban.

By Correspondent / November 14, 2012

A general view of Galway University Hospital in Ireland where Savita Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, died on Oct. 28 after suffering a miscarriage. Her case highlighted the legal limbo in which pregnant women facing severe health problems can find themselves in predominantly Catholic Ireland.

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Dublin, Ireland

The death of a pregnant woman who was refused an abortion has reignited the debate over Ireland's near-total ban of the procedure, already under reexamination by the Irish government.

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Tuesday night, even as a government-appointed "Expert Group" formally presented its advice on how to clarify Ireland's abortion laws, it was revealed that Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who was 17 weeks pregnant, had died in Galway University Hospital on Oct. 28 after being refused an abortion.

Ms. Halappanavar had asked several times for her pregnancy to be terminated because she was was miscarrying, according to her family. But her husband, Praveen, told reporters a termination was refused because there was a fetal heartbeat. Praveen also claimed his wife was told she could not have an abortion because Ireland was "a Catholic country."

A coroner's inquest and separate inquiry by health authorities are under way. The government has not ruled out a further, full public inquiry.

A controversial law

The news of Halappanavar's death broke late Tuesday as the government received the long-awaited findings of its Expert Group on the legal status of abortion.

Abortion is outlawed in the Republic of Ireland under the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act. In 1983, the country strengthened its anti-abortion stance, amending its constitution to recognize a right to life in the unborn, "with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother."

However, a 1992 Supreme Court judgement known as the X Case ruled abortion was permitted if there was "a real and substantial risk" to the life of the mother.

And in 2010, the European Court of Human Rights stated that the Irish law was likely to result in legal terminations not going ahead as a result of doctors' fear of prosecution. The ECHR called for the law to be clarified, as "the criminal provisions of the 1861 Act would constitute a significant chilling factor for both women and doctors."

Pro-choice campaigners say this lack of clarity endangers women's lives, linking Halappanavar's death to it.

"Two decades ago, the Supreme Court ruled women have a right to an abortion if there is a risk to her life. The issue in this case is that doctors don't know what to do," says Sarah McCathy of campaign group Galway Pro Choice.

Against this backdrop, the emotive Halappanavar case immediately took on enormous political significance. Opposition politicians slammed the government, some demanding action to legislate for abortion.

"We warned [the government] that this would happen but they didn't listen," says independent socialist lawmaker Clare Daly. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Ms. Daly's party affiliation.]

Ms. Daly, whose bill to legalize abortion in limited circumstances was defeated on April 19, says she plans to challenge the government.

"If they don't deliver, we'll be reintroducing our bill without further delay," she told the Monitor.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny says the government will assess the expert recommendations in the next two days.

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