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Abortion is back on Irish agenda: two inquiries set up

30 November 2012

ABORTION is on the Irish agenda again, some 20 years after the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not prevent termination of a pregnancy where the life of the mother was at risk - including the possibility of suicide.

Six successive governments failed to act on the court's urgings to introduce legislation that would clarify the matter. The European Court of Human Rights has also found against the Irish State in a case brought by women who had to go abroad for terminations. It is estimated that more than 4000 Irish women travel to the UK and other European countries annually for abortions.

The present coalition government pledged to set up an expert group to provide recommendations, and their findings were brought to the Cabinet on Tuesday.

The debate intensified after it was revealed that last month, Savita Halappanavar, aged 31, died from septicaemia in Galway University Hospital having presented with a miscarriage at 17 weeks; the foetus was unviable, and her husband, Praveen, alleges that she pleaded with medics for a termination on three occasions, but was told that, while the foetus still had a heartbeat, nothing could be done.

Mrs Halappanavar, it is alleged, was eventually treated after the foetal heartbeat stopped, but she died a few days later. The hospital's side of the story, as yet unknown, is now the subject of two separate inquiries: one by the Health Service Executive, and another by the independent Health Information and Quality Authority. Her husband is calling for a public inquiry into her death.

Mrs Halappanavar's parents, who live in south-west India, echo his demand, but the Irish government's Health Minister, Dr James Reilly, says that the HSE inquiry must proceed as a matter of urgency, as well as the HIQA investigation, in order to establish the facts.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said that he expected all his party members to support whatever legislation emerged.

Among four recommendations, the report, led by Mr Justice Seán Ryan, states that "when there is a difference of opinion between the woman and her doctor . . . there should be a formal review process that could be invoked by or on behalf of the woman, so that it could be established, as a matter of law, whether the particular case presented a sufficient risk to the woman's life such that a lawful termination of pregnancy may be performed."

The RC Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, stated that nowhere in Roman Catholic teaching was it stated that the life of an unborn child was to take precedence over that of the mother. The Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, expressed his sorrow for the family of Mrs Halappanavar.

Sam Harper, a member of the Church of Ireland Board for Social Theology in Action, explained the position traditionally adopted by the Church of Ireland: "The Board for Social Theology affirms the sanctity of all human

life, including the life of both the mother and the unborn child. As a result, while we hold that termination of a pregnancy is never a desirable outcome, we recognise that sometimes extreme medical circumstances may require it. . .

"Medical circumstances would also apply in the management of spontaneous abortions and miscarriages. The Church has not made any comments on the specifics of the case currently under investigation, but the board expresses its deep sadness regarding the death of Mrs Savita Halappanavar."

Politicians and church leaders in the Irish Republic are now hoping that the positive move by the government towards legislation will be debated without the rancour that has characterised debates in the past.


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