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Death put spotlight on Ireland abortion law

DUBLIN -- The debate over legalizing abortion in Ireland flared yesterday after the government confirmed that a woman in the midst of a miscarriage was refused an abortion and died in a hospital after suffering blood poisoning.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny said he was awaiting findings from three investigations into the death of Savita Halappanavar, 31, an Indian woman who was 17 weeks pregnant. Her case highlighted the legal limbo in which pregnant women facing severe health problems can find themselves in predominantly Catholic Ireland.

Ireland's constitution officially bans abortion, but a 1992 Supreme Court ruling found the procedure should be legalized in situations when the woman's life is at risk from continuing the pregnancy. Five governments since have refused to pass a law resolving the confusion, leaving hospitals reluctant to terminate pregnancies except in the most obviously life-threatening circumstances.

The vast bulk of Irish women wanting abortions, about 4,000 a year, travel next door to England, where abortion has been legal on demand since 1967. Halappanavar's husband, Praveen, said doctors at University Hospital Galway in western Ireland determined she was miscarrying within hours of her hospitalization Oct. 21, a Sunday, for severe pain. He said over the next three days, doctors refused their requests for an abortion to combat her surging pain and fading health.

The hospital declined to say whether doctors believed Halappanavar's blood poisoning could have been reversed had she received an abortion rather than waiting for the fetus to die on its own. The Galway coroner planned a public inquest.

"Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby," her husband told The Irish Times by phone from Belgaum, India. "When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning, Savita asked, if they could not save the baby, could they induce to end the pregnancy? The consultant said: 'As long as there is a fetal heartbeat, we can't do anything.'

"Again on Tuesday morning . . . the consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita said: 'I am neither Irish nor Catholic' but they said there was nothing they could do," her husband said.

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