Death sparks anger at Ireland’s abortion laws


THE Irish government faces worldwide pressure to reform abortion law, with demonstrations planned for Irish embassies around the globe over the death of a young woman in a Galway hospital.
About 2000 demonstrators gathered outside the Irish parliament, the Dail, on Wednesday night to protest against the government’s inaction over abortion after news of the death of Savita Halappanavar, 31.
Mrs Halappanavar died after doctors refused to terminate her 17-week pregnancy, even though they knew her miscarriage was inevitable and there was no chance the foetus would survive.
They left Mrs Halappanavar to labour naturally, despite her pleas to be induced, as long as the foetal heartbeat continued.
Her husband said doctors told him this was because “this is a Catholic country”.
Mrs Halappanavar delivered a dead foetus after three days of agonising pain but later died of septicaemia.
Many distressed protesters outside the Dail held candles in her memory, and there were emotional scenes as speakers condemned the government for having rejected abortion-law reforms tabled by United Left Alliance MP Clare Daly.
“Had that legislation been in place, Savita’s life would have been saved because doctors at University Hospital in Galway would have had a very clear understanding of legal guidelines,” Choice spokeswoman Stephanie Lord later told Fairfax Media.
“People are very angry and upset that this woman had to die before anyone would take notice. There have been women who have been raped and suicidal or who have had horrendous medical conditions and now this young woman has died – why has it got to this stage?
“Savita had a heartbeat, too.”
Abortion is a bitterly divisive issue in Catholic-dominated Ireland, where an effective ban on the procedure results in thousands of women each year flying out of the country to get abortions overseas. More than 4000 go to the UK alone, according to British health statistics.
In 1983 Ireland’s constitution was amended to ban abortion completely.
In 1992, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that it was permitted when the mother’s life was at risk, including at risk of suicide. This related to a case in which the government used the courts to try to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from leaving the country to have an abortion overseas.
The 1983 ban is effectively still in place because seven successive governments have refused to back the Supreme Court decision by enacting legislation.
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Ireland pass legislation to give effect to the court decision. The government then set up an expert panel to report to the Irish health minister.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the government was due to respond by the end of the month to the demand for reform by the Court of Human Rights.
“This is a tragic case where we have a woman who lost her life, her child is lost and her husband is bereaved,” he said.
Several weeks ago he had said that abortion-law reform was not a priority for his government.
Another abortion-rights demonstration ending in a march on the Dail is planned for the weekend.

First published in The Age.