The Irish government was on Thursday at the centre of an angry backlash as protests were held to demand relaxation of the country’s strict anti-abortion law following the death of Savita Halappanavar, a young dentist of Indian origin, after she was refused abortion at a government hospital even though her life was in danger.
An estimated 2,000 people demonstrated outside Parliament in Dublin in what was described as the “largest” protest there in recent memory, while hundreds joined candlelit vigils in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, the city where Savita lived and died.
The Irish embassy in London was picketed amid calls for similar protests outside Irish missions in other European Union countries at the weekend to coincide with a mass rally planned in Dublin for Saturday.
C.V.R. Prasad, an orthopaedic surgeon who visited Savita in the hospital before she died, called for a public inquiry into her death. He criticised the conduct of doctors at University Hospital Galway who refused to perform abortion on grounds that “this is a Catholic country.”
“This should never happen to another woman. Religion and medicine should never mix,” he said.
The hospital has already launched an internal investigation, in addition to a separate inquiry ordered by Ireland’s Health Service, but Dr. Prasad said any probe should be public.
The HSE announced that it was appointing an external investigator to join the inquiry.
There were ill-tempered exchanges in Parliament as the government faced criticism for not legislating on a 1992 court ruling that abortion could be permitted if there was a “real and substantive” risk to the life of the mother. Critics accused successive governments of “political cowardice” in not laying down specific guidelines on abortion.
Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore admitted that there was need for “legal clarity” on abortion. “We need to ensure that in this country we do not have a doubt which arises in a hospital in a set of circumstances which puts a mother’s life at risk.” Last year, the European Court of Human Rights upheld claims of three women that the ban on abortion breached their human rights.
Savita (31) died from septicaemia a week after she was admitted to the hospital with severe back pain. Her husband Praveen Halappanavar said he was certain that his wife would have been alive had the termination been allowed.