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Tragic Savita case reignites abortion debate in Ireland

Hundreds of women in Ireland are protesting, calling for legislative change after the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died after her requests for an abortion were rejected by her Irish doctors. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

Updated at 12:21 a.m. ET: A debate over abortion has flared in Ireland over the case of Savita Halappanavar, a miscarrying woman suffering from blood poisoning who was refused a quick termination of her pregnancy and died in a hospital.

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This handout picture received from the Irish Times on November 14, 2012 shows Indian national Savita Halappanavar who died after being refused a termination of her pregnancy at a hospital in Galway.

The 31-year-old's case highlights a bizarre legal trap in which pregnant women facing severe health problems in predominantly Catholic Ireland may find themselves.

It also prompted widespread anger, including protests in Dublin outside Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil Éireann. About 400 people gathered for a candelit vigil for Halappanavar in Cork, in the south of Ireland, the Irish Times reported.

Ireland's constitution officially bans abortion, but a 1992 Supreme Court ruling found it 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.

Opposition politicians appealed Wednesday for Prime Minister Enda Kenny's government to introduce legislation immediately to make the 1992 Supreme Court judgment part of statutory law. Barring any such bill, the only legislation defining the illegality of abortion in Ireland dates to 1861 when the entire island was part of the United Kingdom. That British law, still valid here due to Irish inaction on the matter, states it is a crime to "procure a miscarriage."

Halappanavar, an Indian dentist living in Galway since 2008, was 17 weeks along in her pregnancy when she was admitted to the hospital.

University Hospital Galway in western Ireland declined to say whether doctors believed Halappanavar's blood poisoning could have been reversed had she received an abortion rather than wait 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 national government's Health Service Executive, as "standard practice" whenever a pregnant woman dies in a hospital. The Galway coroner also planned a public inquest.


Halappanavar's husband, Praveen, said doctors determined that she was miscarrying within hours of her hospitalization for severe pain on Sunday, Oct. 21. He said that over the next three days doctors refused their requests for a termination of her fetus to combat her own surging pain and fading health.

"Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby," her husband told The Irish Times in a telephone interview from Belgaum, southwest 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," Praveen Halappanavar was quoted as saying.

He said his wife vomited repeatedly and collapsed in a restroom that night, but doctors wouldn't terminate the fetus because its heart was still beating.

The fetus died the following day and its remains were surgically removed. Within hours, Praveen Halappanavar said, his wife was placed under sedation in intensive care with systemic blood poisoning and he was never able to speak with her again. By Saturday, her heart, kidneys and liver had stopped working and she was pronounced dead early Sunday, Oct. 28.

Praveen Halappanavar said he took his wife's remains back to India for a Hindu funeral and cremation on Nov. 3. News of the circumstances that led to her death emerged Tuesday in Galway after the Indian community canceled the city's annual Diwali festival. Savita had been one of the festival's organizers.

 At the vigil in Cork, child psychologist Mary Phelan told The Irish Times that she was furious about what had happened.

"I couldn't find the words to describe how I felt, I was so outraged when I heard what happened to this poor woman," Phelan said. "I feel mortified in front of the world that we have stood by and allowed this happen in our country today. I think we should all be hanging our heads in shame."

Ivana Bacik, a pro-choice advocate and law professor at Trinity College in Dublin, echoed what many others on Wednesday: "I think there's a clear indication that governments' failure to legislate over a period of years is largely responsible for the uncertainty around the law," she told the Guardian.

Bacik was successfully prosecuted in the 1990s for “providing information” about abortions in England, according to the Guardian. She was nearly sent to jail.

History of birth control in Ireland
Until recently, Ireland’s social and professional worlds were hugely enmeshed with the Catholic church. In the 1980s, teachers applying for a job had to submit their priest as a reference, and it wasn’t until 1979 that condoms were legal – and then only by prescription, according to Irish Family Planning Association, the country’s leading sexual health charity.  

It wasn’t until 1993 that condoms could be purchased in vending machines.

Abortion has been mostly ignored in the political sphere – largely because women may leave the country for the procedure. In 2011, more than 4,000 women traveled to England; about 1,500 went to the Netherlands between 2005 and 2009. Other estimates say about 7,000 women leave the Ireland every year to terminate a pregnancy.

But even traveling has been difficult. In 2007, a pregnant 17-year-old dubbed “Miss D” said she wanted an abortion after learning that her fetus had anencephaly, according to irishhealth.com. That meant the baby’s brain would not fully develop and that the baby would most likely die in utero or within hours or days of its birth.   

A social worker told Miss D she couldn’t travel to England, and that police would ban her physically if necessary. Miss D sued and was ultimately able to leave the country.

NBC's Isolde Raftery and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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