Dublin - The death in Ireland of a woman whose repeated requests for an abortion were turned down - reportedly because “this is a Catholic country” - has sparked an international outcry and calls for the country's strict anti-abortion laws to be reformed.
On Wednesday night, more than 1 000 people staged a demonstration outside the Irish parliament, with more protesters gathering outside the Irish embassy in London, amid calls for an independent inquiry into the death.
Savita Halappanavar, a dentist of Indian origin, died in a hospital in Galway city last month from complications when a termination of her pregnancy was delayed after she had been miscarrying for several days. She was 27.
In a series of poignant radio interviews, her husband, Praveen, said he had no doubt Savita would still be alive if the procedure had been carried out earlier, as she had requested.
The case has drawn attention in the starkest way to the state of Ireland's anti-abortion laws, which have a notorious lack of clarity. Particularly tight restrictions on abortion lead thousands of Irishwomen to travel to Britain each year for terminations.
But attempts over decades to liberalise or clarify the law have not been successful. The Dublin government, which has been considering changes to the legislation, said two internal investigations are being held into the death of Halappanavar. It is resisting calls for an independent inquiry.
Speaking from India, Mr Halappanavar said his wife had originally gone to Galway University hospital with back pains. She was found to be miscarrying and was admitted to hospital. She asked for a termination to her 17-week pregnancy because she was in agony, but this was refused.
“A doctor said it was the law - that this is a Catholic country,” he said. “Savita said, 'I am neither Irish not Catholic', but they said there was nothing they could do.”
Mr Halappanavar added that the doctor said that the baby would not survive, but as long as there was a foetal heartbeat “there was nothing they could do”. Three days followed in which the heartbeat was checked several times a day.
His wife's condition deteriorated, he said, until “the nurse came running. She just told me to be brave and she took me near Savita and said, ‘Will you be OK to be there during her last few minutes?' I said yes. It was all in their hands and they just let her go. How can you let a young woman go, to save a baby who will die anyway? Savita could have had more babies.
“What is the use in being angry? I've lost her. I am talking about this because it shouldn't happen to anyone else. It has been very hard to understand how this can happen in the 21st century.”
The cause of Mrs Halappanavar's death was given as septicaemia and E.coli.
On Wednesday, Irish parliamentarians expressed their horror and shame that a woman could die in such circumstances in modern Ireland. Clare Daly, a left-winger member, said: “A woman has died because Galway University Hospital refused to perform an abortion needed to prevent serious risk to her life. This is a situation we were told would never arise. An unviable foetus was given priority over the woman's life, who unfortunately, and predictably, developed septicaemia and died.”
The Health Minister, Dr James Reilly, told the Dublin parliament: “If it becomes apparent - and I can't say with any certainty one way or the other, although I doubt it - that there was any hesitation here because of moral or religious beliefs, then that would be an extremely serious matter.”
A Socialist member, Joe Higgins, said that it was “a monstrous and medieval position in the Ireland of the 21st century”.
Twenty years ago there was a controversial case in which a 14-year-old schoolgirl, a pregnant and suicidal rape victim, was permitted to travel to Britain for a termination. This represented a relaxation in the actual position on abortion but, since then, six successive governments have veered away from attempting to enact legislation to give legal effect to this.
The authorities have lately, however, come under pressure from Europe to clarify the legal position, especially since the European Court of Human Rights handed down a ruling critical of the existing confusion. The government is due to report to Europe shortly on what progress it has made. The current tragic case will propel the issue to the top of the political agenda.
Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws not only in Europe but the entire world.
Abortion is illegal under all circumstances, except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother. Even this caveat is not enshrined in law, but rather exists as a legal precedent.
This means that the law in Ireland is more stringent than that of Saudi Arabia - which allows abortion where the mother's health is at risk, as long as there is permission from her spouse.
Many African countries have similar laws to those in place in Ireland. Nigeria, for example, also allows abortion when it is necessary to save the mother's life, as does Uganda. In Zimbabwe, the rules are more relaxed. Abortion there is permitted in cases where the mother's health is at risk, and in cases of rape and incest.
China, the world's most populous country with 1.2 billion people, limits most families to one child and encourages abortion as a way of controlling population growth.
Similarly, in Canada it has been legal, for any reason up to delivery, since the Supreme Court struck down an anti-abortion law in 1988.
In the UK, abortion is permitted at any time during the pregnancy when the mother's life is at risk or if there is a significant risk of foetal abnormality and within 24 weeks to protect her physical or mental health or for social or economic reasons. - The Independent