Sunday 25 September 2016

Government under increasing pressure to reform abortion laws

Ed Carty and Lyndsey Telford

Published 14/11/2012 | 18:10

THE Government has come under heightened pressure to reform complex abortion laws after the death of a pregnant Indian woman who suffered a miscarriage.

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Twenty years since a separate controversial abortion case split the country and two years since European judges called for clear direction on when a termination is legal, the death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway University Hospital has sparked a backlash.

Mrs Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, was 17 weeks pregnant when she died on October 28 after suffering a miscarriage and septicaemia.

Her husband, Praveen, has alleged that doctors refused several requests for a medical termination because the foetus's heartbeat was present.

Mr Halappanavar has claimed that following his late wife's appeals, they were told: "This is a Catholic country."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the Government will respond by the end of the month to an unconnected 2010 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling that called for reform of abortion law.

He said: "This is a tragic case where we have a woman who lost her life, her child is lost and her husband is bereaved.

"We have agreed to be in contact with the (European) court by November 30."

The current coalition is the seventh Irish government which has failed to legislate on the back of the 1992 X Case where the Supreme Court ruled a teenage girl who had been raped and became pregnant should have the right to travel for an abortion.

Two investigations into Mrs Halappanavar's death have been launched by the Galway-Roscommon University Hospitals Group and the country's health chiefs.

A separate report from a 14-member expert group advising the Government on abortion in the wake of an ECHR ruling has landed on Health Minister Dr James Reilly's desk.

The hospital has refused to comment directly on the circumstances that led to Mrs Halappanavar's death or her husband's claims.

The Taoiseach said Cabinet will examine the expert group's findings before a response is given to the court judgment on or before November 30.

Dr Reilly said Ms Halappanavar's death was a terrible tragedy.

He said: "It's a terrible tragedy for the family, but for the staff involved as well, this is an emotionally traumatic time for them and they are entitled to due process.

"My concern has to be always the patient first, the patient centrally and the patient above everything else.

"If it becomes apparent and I can't say with certainty one way or other, though I doubt it, that there was any hesitation here because of moral or religious beliefs, that would be a very serious matter."

Dr Reilly, speaking generally as a doctor, said that medical experts believed allowing a miscarriage to complete naturally was the safest option.

It is expected the hospital's investigation will be complete within three months.

Mrs Halappanavar's family will be interviewed as part of the review.

A spokesman for the hospital said: "Firstly, the Galway Roscommon University Hospitals Group wishes to extend its sympathy to the husband, family and friends of Ms Halappanavar."

The Galway hospital said medics have carried out all standard practices in notifying the death to the coroner, informing the Health Service Executive and completing a maternal death notification.

In sudden maternal death, hospitals must notify the coroner; the Health Service Executive's National Incident Management Team; and record the death.

In 2010, Ireland's maternal mortality ratio was six out of 100,000 live births from conditions related to pregnancy, delivery, the postpartum period and related complications.

Mrs Halappanavar, who had been living in Ireland and worked as a dentist in Westport, Co Mayo, died from an infection. She had developed septicaemia.

Choice Ireland's Stephanie Lord said the same questions were still being asked after 20 years.

"If a woman is pregnant, her life in jeopardy, can she even establish whether or not she has a right to a termination here in Ireland? There is still a disturbing lack of clarity around this issue," she said.

Dr Ruth Cullen, of the Pro Life Campaign, said some people in favour of allowing abortion were exploiting Ms Halappanavar's tragic death.

"The Medical Council Guidelines are very clear that all necessary medical treatment must be given to women in pregnancy," she said.

The ECHR court ruled in December 2010 that a ban on abortion violated the rights of a woman who feared a cancer relapse during an unplanned pregnancy.

After being treated for a rare form of the disease the Lithuanian woman travelled to the UK for a termination as she feared either her or her unborn child were at risk.

Judges found that under Irish law a doctor faced the "chilling" threat of life in jail if an abortion was ordered and later found to be wrong.

Despite the confusion over Irish abortion law, former minister Mary Harney revealed in 2010 that medics have been carrying out abortion if a woman's life is under threat from high blood pressure, an ectopic pregnancy or cervical cancer.

The issue of suicide or other health complications is not set down in law.

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