Doctors, others demand clearer Irish abortion law

Associated Press Modified: November 15, 2012 at 12:31 pm •  Published: November 15, 2012
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DUBLIN (AP) — Pressure mounted Thursday for the Irish government to draft a law spelling out when life-saving abortions can be performed — a demand that came after a pregnant woman who was denied an abortion died.

Activists protested Thursday night in Belfast a day after thousands rallied in London, Dublin, Cork and Galway in memory of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died a week after doctors said she was starting to miscarry her 17-week-old fetus.

Despite her rising pain, doctors refused her request for an abortion for three days because the fetus had a heartbeat. She died in the hospital from blood poisoning three days after the fetus died and was surgically removed.

Irish gynecologists demanded Thursday that the government close a 20-year-old hole in the country's abortion law that leaves them fearing prosecution if they abort a fetus to protect a woman's life.

"We would like to be able to practice medicine in a safe environment legally. The current situation is like a sword of Damocles hanging over us," Dr. Peter Boylan of the Irish Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said Thursday. "If we do something with a good intention, but it turns out to be illegal, the consequences are extremely serious for medical practitioners."

Halappanavar died Oct. 28 but her husband went public with the situation this week after taking his wife's body back home to India for cremation.

In India, newspaper headlines Thursday accused Ireland of committing a murder. Halappanavar's husband and parents gave a string of interviews expressing incomprehension that Ireland — a country boasting one of the world's lowest maternal mortality rates — could have handled her emergency so poorly.

"In an attempt to save a 4-month-old fetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter. How is that fair, you tell me?" her mother, A. Mahadevi, told Indian television.

Some of Ireland's leading experts on maternal care said they long had feared that a death like Halappanavar's would happen — not because doctors don't want to save the lives of their patients, but because Irish law on abortion makes them fearful of taking action on borderline cases.

In parliament, hours after 2,000 citizens outside the gates held a candlelit vigil demanding reforms in Ireland's prohibitive abortion laws, Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore said the government would act "to bring legal clarity to this issue as quickly as possible."

That would mean a law, or Health Department regulations, spelling out the precise medical circumstances when a doctor can abort a fetus in a country that officially bans the practice except to save the life of the mother.

Boylan, former chief of one of Dublin's leading maternity hospitals, Holles Street, said this often is a difficult call to make.

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