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Death of pregnant woman renews abortion debate in Ireland

| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 9:49 p.m.

DUBLIN — The debate over legalizing abortion in Ireland flared on Wednesday when the government confirmed that a woman in the midst of a miscarriage was refused an abortion and died in an Irish hospital after suffering from blood poisoning.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny said he was awaiting findings from three investigations into the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old 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 for 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 Irish hospitals reluctant to terminate pregnancies except in the most obviously life-threatening circumstances.

The vast bulk of Irish women wanting abortions, an estimated 4,000 per year, simply travel next door to England, where abortion has been legal on demand since 1967. But that option is difficult, if not impossible, for women in failing health.

Halappanavar's husband, Praveen, said doctors at University Hospital Galway in western Ireland determined she was miscarrying within hours of her hospitalization for severe pain on Sunday, Oct. 21. 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. In a statement, it described its own investigation into the death, and a parallel probe by the government's Health Service Executive, as “standard practice” whenever a pregnant woman dies in a hospital. The Galway coroner also planned a public inquest.

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