Irish abortion laws slammed by parents after woman's death

The parents of an Indian woman who suffered a miscarriage and died after being refused an abortion in an Irish hospital slammed Ireland's abortion laws today.

Savita Halappanavar miscarried and died after abortion refused

Death sparks abortion debate


8 years ago
The family of a woman who died after doctors in Ireland denied her an abortion - along with thousands of angry Irish people - are speaking out against the country's medical laws 2:36

The parents of an Indian woman who suffered a miscarriage and died after being refused an abortion in an Irish hospital slammed Ireland's abortion laws today.

Halappanavar, 31, was 17 weeks pregnant when she miscarried and died last month. This was her first pregnancy, said CBC's Ann MacMillan from London, England — where people gathered outside the Irish embassy to protest Ireland's abortion laws. Similar demonstrations occured outside the hospital where Halappanavar died last month and government buildings in Dublin.

Ireland's government confirmed Wednesday that Halappanavar suffered from blood poisoning and died after being denied an abortion, reigniting the debate over legalizing abortion in the predominantly Catholic country. Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Hindu, was working in Ireland as a dentist, said MacMillan.

Halappanavar's family is outraged, she said. Her father said he blames the country's abortion laws and the negligence of the doctors.

"In an attempt to save a four-month-old fetus, they killed my 30-year-old daughter. How is that fair you tell me?" the mother, who goes by A. Mahadevi, told several Indian television stations. Her daughter actually was 31 when she died.

"How many more cases will there be? The rules should be changed as per the requirement of Hindus. We are Hindus, not Christians," she said.

Ireland's near ban on abortions

Ireland has a near-total ban on abortions, said MacMillan.

Ireland's constitution officially bans abortion, but a 1992 Supreme Court ruling said the procedure should be legalized for situations when the woman's life is at risk from continuing the pregnancy. Five governments since have refused to pass a law resolving the confusion, leaving Irish hospitals reluctant to terminate pregnancies except in the most obviously life-threatening circumstances.

Two years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland failed to implement a woman's existing right to abortion if her life is at risk, said MacMillan. Earlier this year, the Irish government created a 14-person panel to make recommendations on the 1992 Supreme Court ruling, she said.

Irish gynecologists demanded Thursday that the government close the hole in the country's abortion law that leaves them fearing prosecution if they perform an abortion to protect a woman's life.

"We would like to be able to practise 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 said Thursday. "If we do something with a good intention, but it turns out to be illegal, the consequences are extremely serious for medical practitioners."

Protesters gathered outside Leinster House in Dublin this week to rally against the death last month of Savita Halappanavar, who was refused an abortion. (Julien Behal, PA/Associated Press)

An estimated 4,000 Irish women travel next door to England every year, where abortion has been legal on demand since 1967. But that option is difficult, if not impossible, if the woman's health is failing.

In parliament, hours after 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 perform an abortion in a country that officially bans the practice except to save the life of the mother.

Despite the pressure, few political analysts expect Ireland's government to take swift action to make clear when abortions can take place. For the past two decades, successive governments have refused to pass legislation in line with the landmark 1992 Supreme Court judgment.

Abortion remains perhaps the most polarizing issue in Ireland despite the decline of faith in the Catholic Church, battered by a string of child-abuse scandals. Opinion polls show majority support for legalizing abortion, but politicians advocating liberalized access to abortion are confined largely to Gilmore's Labour Party, the smaller member of Ireland's 20-month-old coalition government. Other parties, including Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael, are broadly opposed.

Investigation underway

Three separate investigations are looking into the cause of Halappanavar's death. Ireland's health and safety executive announced Wednesday that the National Incident Management Team will oversee a review, and will appoint "an independent, external expert in obstetrics and gynecology" to the team. The expert was appointed Thursday, according to reports by the BBC.

Halappanavar's father, Andanappa Yalagi, said the combination of medical negligence and Irish abortion laws led to his daughter's death.

The spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs, Syed Akbaruddin, said in a Twitter post that the Indian Embassy in Dublin was "following the matter."

Halappanavar's husband, Praveen, said doctors at University Hospital Galway in western Ireland determined that his wife was miscarrying within hours of her hospitalization for severe pain on Oct. 21.

He said that over the next three days, doctors refused their requests for an abortion to combat her searing pain and fading health.

It was only after the fetus died that its remains were surgically removed. Within hours, the woman was placed under sedation in intensive care with blood poisoning, her husband said. By Oct. 27, her heart, kidneys and liver had stopped working, and she was pronounced dead the next day.

With files from CBC News