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Outrage in India over death of woman denied abortion in Ireland

November 15, 2012|By Emily Alpert
  • A woman holds a picture of Savita Halappanavar during a candle light vigil outside Belfast City Hall, Northern Ireland, on Thursday for Savita Halappanavar, who died of blood poisoning after suffering a miscarriage in Galway.
A woman holds a picture of Savita Halappanavar during a candle light vigil… (Peter Morrison / Associated…)

Outrage over the death of an Indian woman denied an abortion in Ireland resounded in her home country this week, as politicians and her grieving parents demanded changes in Irish laws. 

"We should lodge a very strong protest with the Irish authorities as they are responsible for committing a crime which resulted in loss of a human life," politician Brinda Karat told the Press Trust of India. “They preferred to sacrifice the young woman's life rather than to do something which [would] have gone against their religious belief."

Savita Halappanavar died from blood poisoning weeks ago in a Galway hospital after being repeatedly refused an abortion, her husband told the Irish Times in an article published this week.

Doctors had told her that her child would not survive, but wouldn’t terminate the pregnancy even as Halappanavar, resigned to losing her baby, pleaded for the procedure to end her pain, her husband said. He said hospital staffers told them an abortion was impossible because Ireland is a Catholic country.

After the fetus died and was surgically removed, Halappanavar passed away as well. Her death is now under investigation by the hospital and the national body overseeing Irish healthcare.

As vigils and protests erupted in Ireland, the story also ignited a furor in India, where Halappanavar and her husband were originally from. One news website headlined its story, “Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist.” Indian television stations ran interviews with her bereaved parents, who demanded an international investigation.

“In an attempt to save a 4-month-old fetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter,” her mother, A. Mahadevi, told local stations, the Associated Press reported. “How is that fair, you tell me?”

Halappanavar was actually 31 at the time of her death, the Associated Press reported. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs called her death “a matter of concern” and said its embassy in Dublin was closely following the matter.

Abortions to save the life of the woman are supposed to be allowed in Ireland: Though the procedure is banned under the Irish constitution, its highest court ruled decades ago to allow abortion when the woman is in jeopardy.

But that 1992 ruling has never been translated into clear regulations, leaving it in limbo. Fearful of losing their jobs or being sent to jail, many Irish doctors have shied from performing any abortions, even when the baby is already bound to perish, activists complain. Thousands of Irish women are estimated to travel to nearby England annually to terminate pregnancies.

The European Court of Human Rights prodded Ireland to clear up the confusion in its laws nearly two years ago, ruling it had violated European Union law by endangering women. Government officials say they are now reviewing an expert report on altering its abortion laws, but opposition lawmakers and other critics say Ireland has already stalled too long.

"The insanity of the Irish situation couldn't be better illustrated than by this case," said Johanna Westeson, Europe regional director for the Center for Reproductive Rights. "If it weren't so tragic, it would be laughable that such procrastination is going on."

Anti-abortion activists and writers have argued that the case was an aberration from Irish law, not an example of it.

"Normal medical practice in Ireland was not followed after a grossly misplaced application to her case ... of a heretical misreading of Catholic moral law," William Oddie wrote in the Catholic Herald. "These tragic deaths cannot justify the replacement of the world’s most civilized abortion law by the pro-death laws now almost universal throughout Europe." 

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