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Ireland docs urge clarity of abortion law

DUBLIN -- Pressure mounted yesterday on the Irish government to draft a law spelling out when lifesaving abortions can be performed -- a demand that came after a pregnant woman who was denied an abortion died.

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

Doctors refused her request for an abortion for three days because the fetus had a heartbeat. She died of blood poisoning three days after the fetus died and was surgically removed.

Irish gynecologists demanded yesterday 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.

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 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 parliament, 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.

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