Tuesday November 20, 2012

Death After Miscarriage Sparks Abortion Debate

As we went to press on Monday, Dr. Philip Crowley, HSE National Director of Quality and Patient Safety announced the membership of the Investigation Team established to review the circumstances of the death of Ms Savita Halappanavar (Photocall)

The death of an Indian woman after she had a miscarriage at a Galway hospital has catapulted the issue of abortion to the top of the political agenda in Ireland.

Public rallies in memory of Savita Halappanavar were held in cities around Ireland, including a 10,000-strong march through Dublin city centre on Saturday afternoon demanding changes to abortion laws.

Mrs Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, went to hospital in Galway on October 21st complaining of back pain.

She was told that she was going to lose the baby, but despite spending several days in severe pain, doctors turned down repeated requests for a termination while a foetal heartbeat remained.

Her husband Praveen told the Irish Times that doctors refused to abort the foetus saying: "This is a Catholic country".

She died of septicaemia on October 28th.

The couple moved to Galway in 2008. Praveen Halappanavar works as an engineer at the medical devices manufacturer Boston Scientific.

His wife was qualified as a dentist but had taken time off for her pregnancy. Her parents in India had just visited them in Galway and left the day befor she went into hospital.

Praveen Halappanavar said he took his wife's remains back to India for a Hindu funeral and cremation November 3rd.

News of her death emerged last week in Galway after the Indian community cancelled the city's annual Diwali festival. Savita Halappanavar had been one of the festival's main organizers.

The case prompted an immediate and angry public reaction.

Abortion law in Ireland is based on a Supreme Court ruling from 1992's X case, which affirmed that terminations are lawful in cases where there is a real and substantive threat to the life, as distinct to the health, and that includes the risk of suicide.

At the time judges recommended that the government introduce legislation to clarify what that means, but successive governments have run away from the controversial issue.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled against Ireland for failing to implement existing rights to lawful abortion where a mother's life is at risk, and demanded action.

The government appointed a 14 member expert group to make recommendations, and coincidentally, the report landed on the Minister for Health's desk on the night before Savita's story broke in the newspapers.

Dr Peter Boylan, of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said it was time for politicians to have the courage of their convictions.

He added that Ireland needed to act like an "adult state" on the issue of abortion.

Pro-choice campaigners said the case highlighted the need for legislation.

"Some 20 years after the X case, we find ourselves asking the same question: If a woman is pregnant, her life in jeopardy, can she even establish whether she has a right to a termination here in Ireland?" said Choice Ireland spokeswoman Stephanie Lord.

But pro-life campaigners argued that the issue was being used as a political football, and the death was really by misadventure through miscarriage.

Niamh Uí Bhriain of the Life Institute said, "It is very sad to see abortion campaigners rush to exploit this case to further their own agenda.

"The tragic loss of Savita Halappanavar's life was not caused by Ireland's ban on abortion. We need to ensure that mothers and babies are best protected; and abortion is not part of best medical practise. It is medieval medicine."

Senator Ronan Mullen said that it was "regrettable" to see people using the case "as an argument for legislating for the Supreme Court decision in X."

He also pointed to Medical Council guidelines which he said meant that Savita was entitled to the treatment she needed.

The Health Service Executive and the hospital involved have launched investigations into the incident.

The HSE investigation will include be chaired by an independent international expert from outside Ireland, and it's terms of reference are being finalized this week.

Health Minister James Reilly will also present the recommendations of the expert group to his cabinet colleagues next week.

Thousands of people marched from the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square in Dublin down O'Connell Street on ther way to Merrion Square calling for legislation on abortion, following the death of Savita Halappanavar at Galway University Hospital (Photocall)

Just last month, Taoiseach Enda Kenny told Time magazine that he didn't believe the issue of abortion was high on the agenda for his government.

But that now has changed, and there is huge pressure from all sides on the government to take action.

Mr Kenny said that the issue has divided Irish society for decades and should be dealt with rationally

"I'm not going to be rushed into a situation by force of numbers on any side," he said.

"This is something that has to be treated rationally and openly and truthfully, and that's what will happen.

"So we'll have the recommendations and the report brought to Government by the Minister for Health the report will then be published."

The case has made headlines around the world, not least in Savita's home country of India.

India's ambassador to Ireland Debashish Chakravarti met with Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore on Friday.

"I'm under instructions from my government to approach the Irish authorities and to convey our concern at this unfortunate, huge human tragedy, and to hear what the Irish side has to say," he said.

He added that there was "a great deal of angst and sadness, and also a lot of public interest in the matter and among civil society groups."

Savita's father appealed directly to Enda Kenny to take action on abortion laws in Ireland.

"Sir, please change your law and take consideration of humanity," Andanappa Yalagi said in an open letter given to the media from Belgaum in India.

"Please change the law on abortion, which will help to save the lives of so many women in the future."

Mr Yalagi also called on the Indian government to take up the issue with their Irish counterparts.

"We want the government of India to put pressure on Ireland to change the law so that this cannot happen in the future," he said.

He said he was also considering legal action against the hospital and doctors "over the inhumane way they treated my daughter. I do not want this to happen to other people. I am very angry."

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