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Ireland Pledges To Clarify Abortion Law in Wake of Woman's Death

Ireland Pledges To Clarify Abortion Law in Wake of Woman's Death

November 19, 2012 — In response to public outrage over the death of a woman who was denied an abortion, Ireland's government on Thursday said it would clarify the circumstances under which the procedure is legal in the country, Reuters reports. The government said it has received much-delayed recommendations from an expert panel reviewing its abortion law and will report by the end of the month (Humphries/Turner, Reuters, 11/16).

The woman, Savita Halappanavar -- a 31-year-old dentist originally from India -- was having back pain and miscarrying when she arrived at University Hospital Galway. Halappanavar requested an abortion multiple times, but hospital staff refused because the fetus had a heartbeat. Halappanavar's husband said hospital staff also told him his wife could not obtain an abortion because Ireland is a Catholic country. An autopsy found that Halappanavar died of septicemia (Women's Health Policy Report, 11/14).

Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore on Thursday told Ireland's parliament that he was "deeply disturbed" by the incident. "I don't think as a country we should allow a situation where women's rights are put at risk in this way," he said, adding, "We need to bring legal clarity to this issue and that is what we are going to do."

Ireland's Supreme Court in 1992 ruled that abortion should be permitted when a woman's life is at risk (Reuters, 11/16). However, successive governments have failed to pass legislation to clarify the ruling (Pogatchnik, AP/Miami Herald, 11/15). In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Ireland to specify what the Supreme Court's ruling means in practice (Reuters, 11/16).

Peter Boylan of the Irish Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that the current situation makes physicians reluctant to take action when women's lives are threatened because they fear prosecution. "If we do something with a good intention, but it turns out to be illegal, the consequences are extremely serious for medical practitioners," he said (AP/Miami Herald, 11/15).