Irish abortion debate reignited by pregnant woman's death
Savita Halappanavar's husband claims dying wife was refused termination because 'Ireland is Catholic'
THE DEATH of a 31-year-old pregnant woman who was reportedly refused a termination by doctors despite the fact she was miscarrying has reignited the debate on abortion in Ireland.
Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia a week after checking into University Hospital Galway. She had back pain and was found to be miscarrying, but, says her husband, she was refused a termination because the foetus's heart was still beating.
Praveen Halappanavar says staff at the hospital told his wife that "Ireland is a Catholic country".
Two investigations are now being carried out into the circumstances surrounding her death: one by University Hospital and one by Health Service Executive's national incident management team.
Ireland's abortion laws "are a mess and have been for 20 years since what was called the 'X case'", says the BBC's Shane Harrison.
'X' was a 14-year-old schoolgirl who became pregnant and suicidal after being raped. She went to court in 1992 after she was prevented not only from having an abortion, but also from travelling abroad to do so.
The Irish Supreme Court eventually ruled in X's favour, saying that while the mother and child both had a right to life, the risk of suicide was grounds for a termination.
The ruling led to the current Irish Medical Council's guidance on the issue: "Abortion is illegal in Ireland except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother. Under current legal precedent, this exception includes where there is a clear and substantial risk to the life of the mother arising from a threat of suicide."
Harrison explains that the ruling did nothing to provide certainty to doctors regarding when an abortion could be carried out lawfully – and no government has yet legislated to change the situation.
He concludes: "Politicians privately admit this is due to a belief on their part that people in the Irish Republic don't want abortion in Ireland as long as there's a British solution to the country's abortion problem."
But a change in that attitude seems inevitable given the depth of feeling over Halappanavar's death. Dearbhail McDonald writes in the Irish Independent: "It's hard to explain the depth of anger and sorrow Savita's death has ignited in me - a visceral rage that has reduced me, and many of my friends, to tears of exasperation and despair. All of us thinking: that could have been me."
McDonald reminds readers of the late Supreme Court Judge Niall McCarthy, who berated politicians over their "inexcusable failure" to introduce appropriate laws with regard to abortion.
The Irish Examiner says that while it may be premature to come to a definitive judgment, "what seems undeniable is that this is a tragedy which should have been preventable". The paper accuses parliament of "shirking its responsibility to provide legislative clarity on the issue", concluding: "The Halappanavar case is a terrible tragedy which reflects badly on Irish politics, the HSE, and Irish society generally."
Not everybody believes Ireland needs to rush into action. David Quinn, in the Irish Independent, notes: "The British media, in tandem with the Irish, is running with the 'woman dies because she was denied abortion' story headline.
"In Britain it fits in with a certain stereotype of this country to believe that women are dying here because of our lingering adherence to Catholic medical ethics."
However, says Quinn, "We simply do not know for certain at this stage whether Mrs Halappanavar would have died no matter what was done. This is what the investigation into her death will ascertain." He observes that Ireland's maternal death rate is lower than the British rate.