Thousands protest in Ireland to liberalize abortion laws

The recent death of a woman reportedly denied an abortion has sparked outrage. In Dublin, thousands of marchers demanded liberalization of Ireland's tough – and, some say, unclear – anti-abortion laws. 

Shawn Pogatchnik/AP
Several thousand abortion-rights protesters march through central Dublin on Saturday, demanding that Ireland's government ensures that abortions can be performed to save a woman's life. Ireland has been shocked by the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who died of blood poisoning after being denied an abortion in a Dublin hospital last month.

Thousands gathered on the streets of the Irish capital of Dublin today to demand liberalization of Ireland's stringent antiabortion laws.

The street protest, the second the city has seen in three days, was called in response to the Oct. 28 death in a Galway hospital of Savita Halappanavar, who was pregnant and arrived at the hospital complaining of severe pain. She was reportedly refused an abortion, and died after complications during a miscarriage. Her widower, Praveen, says they were told this was because Ireland was "a Catholic country."

The death has sparked outrage across Ireland — and the world. One headline in an Indian newspaper's online edition accused Ireland of murdering Ms. Halappanavar.

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March organizers claim a turnout of 20,000, but Irish police gave a figure of 6,000. Either way, the march was unusually large by Irish standards, wending its way from the Garden of Remembrance, a national independence memorial, to Ireland's Parliament, DáIl Éireann, just over a mile away.

"The mood was somber and angry and determined," says Wendy Lyon, a feminist activist and trainee attorney who attended the demonstration. "The sense was there has to be a turning point. That things can't be allowed to go on without change. Enough is enough, basically."

Ms. Lyon says Halappanavar's death has resulted in a sea change in Irish opinion, politicizing the previously apolitical: "I think the people really have shifted on it. I've spoken to people who were hesitant before but said something had to be done."

Two inquiries are ongoing into Halappanavar's death, one by the hospital and one by Ireland's Health Service Executive, the arm's-length body that administers Ireland's health system.

Coming as it did as the government ponders the recommendations of an "expert group" on abortion, Halappanavar's death has reignited an already simmering war of words about the morality – and legality — of abortion.

Ireland outlaws abortion under an 1861 statute, but a 1992 Supreme Court judgment demanded the country legislate to allow for abortions when a woman's life is threatened by pregnancy. Successive governments have not brought any legislation forward, but a 2010 European Court of Human Rights judgment demanded Ireland clarify the status of abortion in Irish law.

Currently, terminations are permitted only if the intention is to save the life of the pregnant woman rather than end the pregnancy. Doctors have complained there is a lack of clarity over when they can or cannot perform terminations, either by induced labor or by dilation and evacuation, a method used to deal with miscarriages but also a form of surgical abortion.

Speaking on Friday, Prime Minister Enda Kenny rejected the idea there was a connection between Halappanavar's death and the country's stance on abortion, calling it a "tragic coincidence."

Mr. Kenny is on the record as an opponent of abortion, and his conservative Fine Gael party is virtually uniformly antiabortion, but his coalition partners in the Labor party are predominantly in favor of at least limited access to abortion.

Smaller events were held across Ireland today, including in Galway, where 60 members of the Indian community gathered outside Galway University Hospital. Candlelight vigils were also held in other towns and cities, including an assembly of 1,000 people in Galway.

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