Ireland Abortion Scandal: Death of a Pregnant Woman Prompts Soul-Searching

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Protestors hold pictures of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who was allegedly refused a pregnancy termination, as they gather outside Leinster House, the Irish Parliament building, during a demonstration in favor of abortion legislation in Dublin, Ireland, Nov. 14, 2012.

The death of an Indian woman who was allegedly refused an abortion even though her life appeared to her and her husband to be in danger has prompted Irish abortion rights activists to protest in several cities around the predominantly Catholic country. The public announcement on Nov. 14 of the woman’s death, which occurred last month in a hospital in the city of Galway, coincides with the release of a report commissioned by the Irish government into whether Ireland’s strict abortion laws should be liberalized.

“If a story like this does not change the minds of the political establishment in Ireland, I don’t know what will,” says Rachel Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Galway Pro-Choice, an abortion rights organization. “We need to ensure something like this never happens again.”

(MORE: Ireland’s Abortion Debate Heats Up)

In a sign of how contentious the issue is in Ireland, the pro-life Youth Defence group, which campaigns against any change in the existing abortion laws, released a statement in response to the death stating that “Ireland’s ban on abortion does not pose a threat to women’s lives.”

The woman, a 31-year-old dentist named Savita Halappanavar, died at University Hospital Galway on Oct. 28. An autopsy carried out by the hospital two dayslater found that she had died from blood-poisoning and an infection known as E.coli ESBL, according to a report in the Irish Times. News of her death became public on Nov. 14 following an interview that her husband gave to a newspaper. Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she began to suffer from back pains last month, her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, explained in a second interview on Nov. 14 to Ireland’s RTE radio. She was quickly brought to hospital, where medical staff told her she was fully dilated, was leaking amniotic fluid and would miscarry her child, her husband said. He said that the hospital staff informed his wife that the miscarriage would only take a few hours. Three days later the fetus died inside Halappanavar’s womb, he said. During this period Halappanavar was in extreme pain and continually asked doctors to terminate the pregnancy, her husband said. Staff refused, according to Praveen Halappanavar, on the grounds that they were prohibited from performing abortions by law and that they could not remove the fetus until its heart had stopped beating. Praveen Halappanavar told the Irish Times that they also refused on the grounds that “this is a Catholic country.”

Following the procedure Halappanavar was quickly taken into an intensive care unit where her health began to deteriorate, her husband said. She died on October 28. The code of confidentiality that exists between patient and doctor makes it hard to tell whether women have previously died under similar circumstances in Ireland.

The Irish health service, the Health Service Executive, issued a statement saying: “The HSE today extended its deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the late Ms Halappanavar…The process of incident review seeks to ascertain the facts relating to the incident, draw conclusions and make recommendations in relation to any steps that may need to be taken to prevent a similar incident occurring again.”

(MORE: The Irish Answer)

Abortion in Ireland is available only when the life of the mother is at risk. However, a lack of clarity in legislation has led to confusion within the Irish medical profession as to when a woman’s life is at risk—with the result that abortions are rarely, if ever, performed under any circumstances.

The government formed a panel of lawyers and medical experts in January to examine a European Court of Human Rights ruling that stated that the right to the respect of privacy of a woman had been breached by the Irish state. The report, which is expected to include recommendations on possible revisions in Ireland’s abortion laws, is to be examined by the country’s Minister for Health.

The timing of the report’s publication and Halappanavar’s death are entirely coincidental but her death has thrust an already explosive issue into the forefront of Irish political debate. Two investigations are being carried out into her death. The Galway Roscommon University Hospital Group, the branch of the Irish health service that operates the hospital where Halappanavar died, has started an inquiry on a local level while the National Incident Management team of Ireland’s national health service is also examining the circumstances surrounding the death. The hospital says that a full report could take up to three months to complete. Meanwhile, Michael Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail, the main opposition party, called for an independent inquiry into the death on Wednesday. He told the Irish parliament that “a woman has died in circumstances which are very rare. It’s because of the rarity of the occurrence that in my view demands an exceptional response, and that exceptional response is an independent inquiry.” Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said that he would prefer not to take any official action until the government has viewed the findings of the two inquiries.

Praveen Halappanavar told RTE on Wednesday of the pain and grief that he and his wife’s parents have suffered in recent weeks. “We were on top of the world and everyone was so excited, talking about the baby,” he told the Irish broadcaster. Instead, he said, he found himself last month sitting by his wife’s bedside “holding her hand while they were trying to pump her heart. Then the doctor just told me they’d lost her.”

Thecouple moved from Southern India to the small town of Westport in Ireland in 2008, RTE news reported. Savita had been working as a dentist while Praveenworked as an engineer for Boston Scientific, an American medical device manufacturer, in Galway. Savita Halappanavar’s family returned to India with her body on November 1, where she was cremated two days later. Mr. Halappanavar has confirmed that he plans to return to Ireland in the coming days.

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