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President Michael D Higgins defends Savita inquiry comments

PRESIDENT Michael D Higgins has said his intervention in the row over an inquiry into the death of an Indian dentist after a miscarriage showed solidarity with the people.

Defending his remarks, Mr Higgins said his position was very straightforward as he was expressing the great sadness felt in Ireland over Savita Halappanavar's hospital death.

"I said that it was a great tragedy, a young woman, and I expressed my sympathies to her husband and her extended family," he said.

"I was joining the thousands of Irish people who are on the streets saying the same thing and then, on the specific issue where do we go from here, I said it's very important that the investigation be such as satisfies the genuine concern of the Irish people and that meets, in some way - in some small way - helps reducing the grief for Savita's husband and her family and then that meets the needs of the state's responsibilities.

"It was no more and no less than that."

Savita's husband Praveen is battling the Irish Government and health chiefs to hold a sworn, public inquiry into her death on October 28, which he claims happened after she was denied an abortion on medical grounds.

A second investigation - a statutory inquiry run by the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) watchdog - is expected to be announced this evening.

Mr Halappanavar has refused to co-operate with the existing Health Service Executive (HSE) inquiry while his lawyers revealed some detail of his wife's medical notes from Galway University Hospital from October 21-28.

They claim there is no record in the files of the several requests made by the Halappanavars for a termination of the pregnancy on medical grounds.

The Irish Government has been under deepening pressure to agree to an independent, public inquiry which would allow for witness cross-examination at the Halappanavar's request.

Mr Higgins, on a three day trip to Liverpool and Manchester, rejected suggestions that he had overstepped his role as head of state by commenting on the controversy.

"What I do say, what I did say was that it (the inquiry) should be aimed to ensure the safety of the health of women," the president said.

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"And I think surely that is the greatest consideration."

Mr Higgins said his main concerns were how anxious Irish people were about the controversy and that women be adequately cared for.

He reiterated his desire for a balanced inquiry: "These are the real concerns and I think it is up to those who take these decisions in this area to try and meet, as I have said, the genuine concerns of the public, the deep grief of the family, then also the state and how to discharge its responsibilities in such as way as tries to meet all of these."

Joan Burton, minister for social protection and a former Labour colleague of the president's, commended him for speaking out.

"I've read and heard the comments made by Uachtaran na hEireann (President of Ireland) and I want to say they are considerate, thoughtful, reflective and humane," she said.

President Higgins said he was well aware of his role.

"I can assure you as a political scientist for nearly 40 years, I'm very well aware of not only the constitutional limits on the president but what the people might correctly expect from their president," he said.

"If you have so many thousands of people coming out in different places and saying or expressing their sympathy to the family, which they did, and that's very moving and I obviously take account of that too."

The president added that his remarks, as reported last night, were "very close to the public".

Mrs Halappanavar, 31, died on October 28, 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

She miscarried and subsequently suffered septicaemia, and her husband claims that doctors refused to carry out an abortion because a foetal heartbeat was present.

HSE inquiry chairman, obstetrics and gynaecology expert Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, of St George's, University of London, is to complete an interim report on Mrs Halappanavar's death before Christmas.

Mr Halappanavar is refusing to meet the chairman, despite pleas from Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The investigation was in disarray before its work began after three consultants from the Galway hospital were named on the review panel on Monday. They were removed and replaced by yesterday evening.

HSE chiefs were at pains to stress today that Health Minister Dr James Reilly did not sign off on the composition of the panel.

The draft terms of reference released last night said the inquiry will result in a report, with details of the chronology, findings and recommendations and names of concerned individuals censored, being given to the family.

A copy of Mrs Halappanavar's medical files are with a coroner in Galway, the hospital and the family.

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