Abortion in Ireland returned to spotlight by death

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 3:39am

About 10,000 people marched through Dublin and observed a minute's silence in memory of an Indian dentist who died of blood poisoning in an Irish hospital after being denied an abortion.

Marchers, many of them mothers and daughters walking side by side, chanted "Never again!" and held pictures of Savita Halappanavar as they paraded through the city to stage a candlelit vigil outside the office of Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

The 31-year-old, who was 17 weeks pregnant with her first child, died on October 28 - one week after being admitted to hospital with severe pain at the start of a miscarriage. Her death, made public by her husband last week, has highlighted Ireland's long struggle to come to grips with abortion.

Doctors denied her repeated request to remove the fetus until its heartbeat stopped four days after she was taken to hospital. Hours later she became critically ill and her organs began to fail. She died three days later from blood poisoning. Her widower and activists say she could have survived had the fetus been removed sooner.

The case illustrates a 20-year-old confusion in abortion law in Ireland, where the practice is outlawed in the constitution. A 1992 Supreme Court ruling decreed that abortions should be legal to save the life of the woman, including if she makes credible threats to commit suicide.But successive governments have refused to pass legislation spelling out the rules governing the general principle.

Speakers from socialist parties, women's groups and abortion rights activists addressed Saturday's crowd from atop a flat-bed truck. They decried the fact that two decades had passed without any political decision to define when hospitals could, and could not, perform abortions.

The only law on the books dates to British rule in 1861, declaring that the "procurement of a miscarriage" amounts to murder and could be punishable by up to life in prison.

Irish voters in 1992 passed constitutional amendments legalising the right of Irish women to receive information on abortion services in neighbouring England, where the practice has been legal since 1967, and to travel there without fear of facing prosecution. British health authorities estimate that 4,000 to 5,000 Irish residents travel annually to England for abortions.