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Pregnant Woman's Death Sparks Abortion Debate In Ireland

People hold pictures of Savita Halappanavar during a vigil outside Belfast City Hall, Northern Ireland, on Thursday. Halappanavar died Oct. 28 in Galway, Ireland, just days after she was denied an abortion.
Peter Morrison
People hold pictures of Savita Halappanavar during a vigil outside Belfast City Hall, Northern Ireland, on Thursday. Halappanavar died Oct. 28 in Galway, Ireland, just days after she was denied an abortion.

The death of an Indian woman is prompting Ireland to examine the conditions under which abortions can be permitted in the country.

Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, died last month after she began to miscarry her 17-week-old fetus. Doctors denied her an abortion, a procedure that is illegal in the predominantly Catholic country, because the fetus had a heartbeat. The story gained traction this week after Halappanavar's husband took her body back to India for cremation and went public with the events that led to her death.

Here's more from the Irish Times newspaper:

"The Government is not ruling out an independent inquiry into the tragic death of Ms Halappanavar, who presented on October 21st with back pain at Galway University Hospital where she was found to be miscarrying at 17 weeks. She died of septicaemia on October 28th.

"Her husband, an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, had described how she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated, given that she was in pain and was miscarrying. He said the request was refused by medical staff who said they could not do anything because there was still a foetal heartbeat. He said they were told that this was the law and that 'this is a Catholic country'.

"He said she spent more than three days 'in agony' until the foetal heartbeat stopped. The dead foetus was removed, but Ms Halappanavar's condition deteriorated and she died."

The Associated Press reported Thursday that Halappanavar's death has resulted in pressure on the Irish government to come up with a law that would outline the conditions under which abortions can be performed.

"We would like to be able to practice medicine in a safe environment legally. The current situation is like a sword of Damocles hanging over us," Dr. Peter Boylan, of the Irish Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the AP. "If we do something with a good intention, but it turns out to be illegal, the consequences are extremely serious for medical practitioners."

Here's more from the AP's reporting on the story from Dublin:

"In Parliament, hours after 2,000 citizens outside the gates held a candlelit vigil demanding reforms in Ireland's prohibitive abortion laws, Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore said the government would act 'to bring legal clarity to this issue as quickly as possible.'

"That would mean a law, or Health Department regulations, spelling out the precise medical circumstances when a doctor can abort a fetus in a country that officially bans the practice except to save the life of the mother."

The case has prompted consternation in India, where abortion is legal. One news website headlined its coverage of the story: "Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist."

Halappanavar's parents took their grief to the Indian television channels.

"In an attempt to save a 4-month-old fetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter," said her mother, A. Madhavi. "How is that fair, you tell me?"

Feilim McLaughlin, Ireland's ambassador to India, met with Indian lawmakers to ease concerns over the case, the Irish Times reported.

In 1992, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that women could have abortions if their pregnancy posed a risk to their lives — but not their health. But the country's laws have not been altered in line with that judgment. Abortion remains a sensitive issue in Ireland, and a quick change in the laws is unlikely.

But the case has prompted an outpouring of support in Ireland. In an essay for the Irish Independent, journalist Dearbhail McDonald called Halappanavar's death "shocking."

"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.

"All of us thinking: why haven't we sorted out this mess?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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