Thousands of people rallied outside Ireland’s parliament on Wednesday to demand strict abortion rules be eased after a pregnant Indian woman repeatedly denied a termination died in an Irish hospital.
Savita Halappanavar, 31, admitted to University Hospital Galway in the west of Ireland last month, died of septicemia a week after miscarrying 17 weeks into her pregnancy.
Her repeated requests for termination were rejected because of the presence of a fetal heartbeat, her husband told state broadcaster RTE.
Abortion remains an extremely divisive issue in Ireland, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country that has some of the world’s most restrictive laws on medical terminations.
Despite a dramatic waning of the influence of the Catholic Church, which dominated politics in the country until the 1980s, successive governments have been loath to legislate on an issue they fear could alienate conservative voters.
After several challenges, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that Ireland must clarify its position.
At least 2,000 people gathered for a candlelit vigil to demand that the government legislate to close a legal loophole that leaves it unclear when the threat to the life of a pregnant woman provides legal justification for an abortion.
“My reaction was outrage. Shame that this happened in my country,” protester Emer McNally, 33, and six months pregnant, said. “It’s scary to think that medical treatment was denied.”
The news of Ms. Halappanavar’s death sparked a wave of anger on Irish social media, with more than 50,000 people sharing the Irish Times’s lead story on the issue on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose party has been criticized for delays in introducing legislation to define in what circumstances abortion should be allowed, offered condolences to the woman’s family, but said he could not comment further until an investigation into the death.
In 1992, when challenged in the “X-case” involving a 14-year-old rape victim, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was permitted when the woman’s life was at risk, including from suicide.
But an earlier constitutional amendment banning abortion remains in place, leaving medical professionals to navigate a legal minefield when treating pregnant women.
“What happened to this woman was nothing short of medieval,” independent socialist MP Clare Daly told the crowd. “We can’t let political cowardice kill another woman.”
The government says it has been waiting for the recommendations of an expert panel before fulfilling the European Court of Human Rights’ demand for clarification. The panel’s report was delivered to the government on Tuesday.
In the absence of legislation, Irish women are forced to go abroad to terminate their pregnancies, an option not open to seriously ill mothers.
“It’s very frightening. It makes me feel it’s not a safe country in which to have a baby,” said Sinead O’Brien, a 41-year-old holding a placard saying, “Never Again.”
“There has been a groundswell of feeling all day. I think something has to change.”