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Death of Indian Woman Forces Ireland to Confront Law on Abortion

Published: November 16, 2012 | 8:15 am
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It’s taken the death of a 31-year- old Indian woman in a hospital in the west of Ireland to force politicians to confront the taboo over abortion.

Successive governments fearing a backlash in a mainly Catholic nation have avoided introducing laws to fasten down the meaning of a 1992 Supreme Court ruling granting women the right to an abortion where the mother’s life is at risk. Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore told parliament yesterday the government won’t “ignore and neglect” the issue anymore.

The case of Savita Halappanavar, who died last month of septicemia after doctors decided not to carry out a termination, reignited the battle over abortion, which remains among the most divisive issues in an increasingly secular society. The death of the dentist in Galway sparked protests and candlelit vigils across the country demanding that the government act, while anti-abortion campaigners prepare to mount resistance.

“There has been an abdication of a responsibility to enact legislation that is practically necessary, but politically costly,” Fiona de Londras, a law professor at Durham University in England, said in an interview. “Those opposed to change are very vocal and very effective in getting their message across.”

The issue moved back to center stage this week after the Irish Times on Nov. 14 reported that Halappanavar was refused a termination because a fetal heartbeat was present. She was informed she was in a Catholic country, the Dublin-based newspaper reported, citing her husband.

‘Legal Clarity’
Prime Minister Enda Kenny said that day he would await the outcome of investigations into the death before considering an independent inquiry. Gilmore, his deputy, said the government will act to establish clearer guidelines for doctors.

“This government is going to deal with this issue,” Gilmore said in Dublin yesterday. “We need to bring legal clarity to this situation and that is what we will do. We won’t be the seventh government to neglect and to ignore this issue. We also need to have clarity for medical professionals who have to make medical judgment calls in real life.”

The woman died on Oct. 28. Her husband said she could have been saved had an abortion been carried out. About 1,000 people protested outside parliament on Nov. 14, with rallies also taking place in Cork and London.

“There should be an independent inquiry, short, sweet and to the point, and then the government should legislate,” said Sean Breen, 56, a librarian in Dublin. “We are more concerned with trivial things such as interest rates and putting bankers in jail. We should get on with life.”

Assumptions
The hospital is now investigating the death and some warn against pre-judging the outcome.

“There has been a complete rush to judgment as to what caused the death of the woman at the center of this,” David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, which promotes religion in society, said in an interview. “It has been assumed she died because of our laws on abortion. That has absolutely not been determined,” he said, adding it was his personal opinion rather than that of the Dublin-based institute.

Under a Supreme Court ruling in 1992, a woman has a right to an abortion when there is a substantial risk to her life, and doctors say terminations are carried out in some situations.

Yet campaigners say that the lack of any detailed laws to flesh out the general constitutional principle may have hampered medical staff in Galway in deciding when to intervene.

“We don’t need a report to know the medical profession is left in limbo,” Mary-Lou McDonald, a lawmaker with opposition party Sinn Fein, said in parliament yesterday. “The limbo exists because this house fails to act.”

Coalition Tension?

The Savita case, as it has become known in Ireland, risks exposing tensions in Kenny’s coalition between his more socially conservative Fine Gael and Gilmore’s center-left Labour Party.

Fine Gael is more cautious, with ministers warning against rushing into legislation. Health Minister James Reilly on Nov. 14 told lawmakers that he “doubts” religious beliefs were behind the decision not to carry out the abortion.

“There is potential for this causing divisions in the government because you have a Labour Party which would be reasonably liberal,” said Eoin O’Malley, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University. “It is an issue politicians have tried to palm off by giving to the people by referendum.”

For now, the government can avoid conflict spilling over, as it awaits the outcomes of inquiries into the death.

Wanting Facts
Kenny’s administration is also considering a 2010 European Court of Human Rights judgment that decided while Ireland had the power over abortion, if there was a right of access to a termination then a system must in place to implement it. Gilmore said yesterday the government will respond to the Council of Europe by the end of the month.

Some voters want the government to move quickly.

“Hopefully the government will act now and take the politics and religion out of the matter, and base it on scientific fact,” said Robert Arthur, 34, an engineer, speaking in Dublin’s city center. “It’s disappointing that it has come to a situation where a woman died before acting” on the Supreme Court decision, he said.

The government may have more room to maneuver than in the past, as the Savita case weighs on voters and the Catholic Church loosens its grip on Irish society. Contraception is widely and openly available. In 1996, divorce was introduced, and same-sex civil partnerships became legal last year.

“I suspect in this case the Irish people if they were asked would have no problem legislating for abortion for the Savita case,” said O’Malley, the academic. “Any situation when you can put a human face on the behavior of politicians or the absence of action, it makes it easier to protest.”

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