Ireland to examine death of woman denied abortion

Ireland has formed an expert panel to investigate why an Indian woman died in an Irish hospital — and whether her life might have been saved had she received an abortion.

Panel to be led by Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, a Sri Lankan-born expert on maternal care

Andanappa Yalagi, left, father of Savita Halappanavar, is helped by a family friend as he hangs her portrait at their house in Belgaum in the southern Indian state of Karnataka Halappanavar, who was refused a termination, died from blood poisoning in an Irish hospital. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Ireland formed an expert panel Monday to investigate why an Indian woman died in an Irish hospital — and whether her life might have been saved had she received an abortion.

The case of Savita Halappanavar has focused worldwide attention on Ireland's two-decade failure to define when abortions can be performed legally to save the life of a woman.

The 31-year-old dentist died Oct. 28 one week after being hospitalized with an imminent miscarriage. Her widower says they asked for three days for an abortion to ease her pain but were refused because the fetus still had a heartbeat.

A coroner found that Halappanavar died from internal infections and organ failure three days after the fetus itself died. Her parents in India have accused Irish authorities of letting their only daughter die to preserve the nation's constitutional ban on abortion.

A woman holds a candle during a vigil in memory of Savita Halappanavar and in support of changes to abortion law in Dublin on Saturday. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

Seeking to address international criticism, Ireland announced its fact-finding investigation would be led by Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, a Sri Lankan-born expert on maternal care who is head of obstetrics and gynecology at St. George's Hospital in London. He is also president of the International Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Health Minister James Reilly deflected criticism that the seven-member panel would be given around three months to report on the medical treatment Halappanavar received at University Hospital Galway in western Ireland. She was placed in intensive care Oct. 24 with suspected blood poisoning hours after the dead fetus was removed from her womb.

"I want this carried out as expeditiously as possible but obviously there's a balance to be struck with ... doing it properly," Reilly said.

Her widower, Praveen Halappanavar, on Monday thanked the Irish public for its goodwill since news of his wife's death broke last week.

About 10,000 people marched Saturday through Dublin beneath banners of Savita Halappanavar's face and the motto "Never again," and a similar protest is planned for Wednesday.

Reilly said the full Cabinet would discuss another government-commissioned report this week on drafting new rules to explain when life-saving abortions can be performed. Opposition lawmakers planned to introduce a bill Tuesday demanding immediate legislation, but the government said it would reject the move as premature.

The Council of Europe, which previously has criticized Ireland's ill-defined policies on providing life-saving abortions, condemned Ireland's medical care for Halappanavar in a statement Monday.

"I consider what happened to Savita an affront to human dignity and a serious form of violence," said Tina Acketoft, chairwoman of the council's Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination.

"The only way in which this disturbing death can be a little less pointless is by ensuring that no more women die in Ireland from being denied legal abortion," she said.

Legal limbo

Successive Irish governments have refused to pass legislation in support of a 1992 Supreme Court judgment that found life-saving abortions should be legal in Ireland. The court ruled that a 14-year-old girl who had been raped and impregnated by a neighbour should receive an abortion because she was making credible threats to commit suicide if denied one. The government had blocked her plan to travel to England for an abortion; the girl reportedly suffered a miscarriage during the court case.

The past 20 years' legal limbo means that Irish maternity hospitals have performed abortions only in the most obviously life-threatening circumstances. The practice has taken place amid official secrecy, with the government and hospitals providing no official figures on the number of abortions or breakdowns on the medical reasons for them.

Some Irish obstetricians say they fear being targeted by lawsuits, protests or even criminal charges if they perform abortions in cases where it might be debatable whether the woman's life is at risk.

An estimated 4,000 Irish women receive abortions annually in England, where the practice has been legal since 1967.