" There are very few absolute certainties in medicine," he said. "As you get less probable, that's where we run into difficulties. ... there are circumstances where our hands are tied."
Despite the pressure, few political analysts expect Ireland's government to take swift action to make clear when abortions can take place. For the past two decades, successive governments have refused to pass legislation in line with a landmark 1992 Supreme Court judgment that found women should receive abortions in Ireland if their pregnancy posed a "real and substantial risk" to their life, but not their health.
Abortion remains perhaps the most polarizing issue in Ireland despite the decline of faith in the Catholic Church, battered by a string of child-abuse scandals. Opinion polls show majority support for legalizing abortion, but politicians advocating liberalized access to abortion are confined largely to Gilmore's Labour Party, the smaller member of Ireland's 20-month-old coalition government. Other parties, including Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael, are broadly opposed.
"For Irish society, abortion is an intractable issue. For politicians it's untouchable," said Dearbhail McDonald, legal editor of the Irish Independent. "This is the kind of thing that brings down a government. They will not risk it."
She wrote a deeply personal column Thursday in her paper, noting she was the same age — 35 — as the woman at the center of the 1992 Supreme Court ruling. That girl, then 14, had been raped by a neighbor. When her parents went to the police, the government tried to stop her from traveling to England for an abortion. The court ruled that the girl should receive an abortion in Ireland because she was threatening to kill herself if refused.
McDonald said many Irish women identified with the plight of that girl, identified only as X, and with Halappanavar, whose smiling face dominated the front page of every Irish newspaper Thursday.
"It's hard to explain the depth of anger and sorrow Savita's death has ignited in me - a visceral rage that has reduced me, and many of my friends, to tears of exasperation and despair," she wrote. "All of us thinking: That could have been me. All of us thinking: Why haven't we sorted out this mess?"
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