DUBLIN (CBS News) – 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, which 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 loathe 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.
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.
“There are two reports and investigations going on at the moment — an internal investigation by the Galway University Hospital Group and the second by the HSE national incident management team. I think it will be very appropriate that the minister for health should receive both those reports as we should consider those reports and decide what the best option from there is,” he said.
The Irish Minister for Health said for a woman to die while giving birth is upsetting.
“For any woman to die during pregnancy is something that we’re all very upset by. I have no knowledge of the full circumstance — I’ve seen reports in the paper, I know the HSE are investigating it and I know it will be referred to the coroner and beyond that I don’t want to make any statement at this point,” minister James Reilly said.
At least 2,000 people gathered for a candle-lit vigil in Dublin to demand 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.
“I only heard about it when I woke up this morning and I was appalled. I just think it’s awful that someone would die because of a bad decision, or because of people not bothering to make a decision that would have changed things for her,” said one female protester.
“The state has failed in the past 20 years to put in place legislation to make the position clearer and to protect women in this country and I think it’s just a huge shame that this woman had to die in such tragic circumstances and highlight the fact that there is a major absence of clear legislation in this country at the moment,” said another protester.
The news of Halappanavar’s death overnight 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.
The organizers of the Dublin protest said they expected a much larger crowd at a weekend demonstration and called on people to protest at Irish embassies around the world.