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Potential for change

John Sepulvado, GalwayNovember 16, 2012

The death of a woman in Ireland who was refused an abortion has led to public anger on the streets of Dublin and in the UK. DW looks at how the case could result in the clarification of Irish abortion laws.

Image: Reuters

On October 21, Savita Halappanavar was admitted to University Hospital Galway. The 31-year-old Indian national was pregnant and complaining of intense back pain.

Within hours, staff at the Irish medical center discovered she was miscarrying. Over the next two days, according to family accounts, the pain worsened. Halappanavar requested an abortion, and according to her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, was refused, because Ireland is a “Catholic country.”

By October 27, the fetal heartbeat stopped, and the fetus was removed. Savita Halappanavar's kidneys and liver stopped working, and shortly after she died of blood poisoning.

The hospital did not return numerous calls for comment, but according to several former patients, as well as a government official, University Hospital Galway has a strong Catholic ethos that often guides administration decisions.

The reaction in Halappanavar's home country has been highly critical. The India Times headline ran a story with the headline, “Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist.”

Stalled legislation

For 20 years, the Irish government has failed to codify abortion rights when the life of the mother is threatened by her pregnancy. In 1992, the Irish Supreme Court heard what's known as the “X case,” and ruled those rights must be extended to women when their life is in jeopardy. The court cited the constitution as the legal basis for the ruling.

But the government has so far refused to act. Most recently, Ireland's parliamentary body - the Dail - postponed releasing a governmental report on abortion in September. Conservative members did not want the public debating abortion at the same time the public would vote on another controversial amendment, the Children's Referendum, which was opposed by rural conservatives.

Irland Abtreibung Proteste nach dem Tod von Savita Halappanavar
Halappanavar died of septicagemia after miscarryingImage: Reuters

The abortion report is the first step in codifying the Supreme Court's ruling. Since then, it's been up to individual hospital administrators to determine whether an abortion can be performed. Adding further complication to this local application of constitutional law is a statute dating back to 1861 that criminalizes anyone who performs or receives an abortion.

“It's hard for the government to justify any kind of delay in clarifying abortion rights,” says Sinead Ahern, spokeswoman for Choice Ireland. “There's a huge silence and stigma about abortion in the state." Now, after Halappanavar's death, “It's very much on the political agenda.”

Several high ranking government officials have said the abortion report will be made public in the next few days. The report was rushed to key Dail members Tuesday evening, shortly before the Halappanavar story broke to the public, according to a senior government official.

“The report will be hurried up as a result of this death,” adds Ahern. “Two weeks ago we were told there was no timeframe for this report. What has happened now, because of the serious questions raised by this story, the risks posed to legislate on this issue have disappeared.”

New political reality

The risks haven't disappeared, but the case has prompted long time conservative officials to ask publicly whether current policy is working.

One of those officials is conservative Irish Senator Jillian van Turnhout. The longtime children's rights activist says she's never before commented publicly on abortion, citing a deep divide over the issue in Ireland, “similar to what you would see in the United States - it's a minefield.”

Still, surveys conducted in the past few years have shown a gradual change in how the Irish public views abortion, with opinion split on whether it should be legal and accessible on the island.

Senator van Turnhout notes that each year more than 6,000 Irish women fly to the UK to have an abortion. By the time they arrive and have paid their airfare and hotel, it's “unlikely” the women will change their minds and elect to carry the baby to term.

“I'm not personally in favor of abortion,” van Turnhout continues. “But what happened in Galway should never have happened. A woman who finds herself in that position should be able to make a choice.”

Turnhout says it is "key" to wait for the full investigation into Halappanavar's death to be completed before drawing any conclusions. In the meantime, Turnhout is urging the government to release the abortion report so Ireland can “have a debate based on evidence, not emotions.”

Irland Abtreibung Proteste nach dem Tod von Savita Halappanavar
Even conservative politicians in Ireland are saying mistakes were made in the way Halappanavar was treatedImage: Reuters

Matter of time

The investigation into Halappanavar's death could last as long as three months, according to government health officials. The head of Ireland's government, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, says all facts must be gathered before action by the government is taken. The conservative leader's comments echo the sentiments of Pro-Life groups, who have urged the public not to rush to judgment.

Yet, in many quarters, judgment has already been reached. The Irish government has defended its lack of action on clarifying the country's abortion laws to its citizens, and the University Hospital Galway has faced resounding criticism for how they treated Halappanavar as a patient.

And the Indian media, with headlines accusing Ireland of murder and “living in the dark ages,” is using the case to pass judgment on the character of the Irish nation as a whole.