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'This is a Catholic country': Woman dies of septicaemia after being refused an abortion in Irish hospital

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The death in Ireland of a woman whose repeated requests for an abortion were turned down - reportedly because “this is a Catholic country” - has sparked international protests and condemnation.

In Dublin more than a thousand people staged a demonstration outside the Irish parliament amid calls for an independent inquiry into the death.

Savita Halappanavar, a dentist of Indian origin, died in a hospital in Galway city last month from complications when a termination of her pregnancy was delayed after she had been miscarrying for several days. She was 27.

In a series of poignant radio interviews her husband Praveen said he had no doubt his wife Savita would still be alive if the procedure had been carried out earlier, as she had requested.

The case has drawn attention in the starkest and most tragic way to the state of Ireland's abortion laws, which have a notorious lack of clarity. Particularly tight restrictions on abortion lead thousands of Irishwomen to travel to Britain each year for terminations.

But attempts over decades to liberalise the law, or to clarify it, have not been successful.

The government, which has been considering changes to the laws, has said two internal investigations are being held into the death of Mrs Halappanavar. But it is resisting calls for an independent inquiry.

Speaking from India, Mr Halappanavar said he and his wife had been on top of the world to be expecting a baby, but she had gone to Galway University hospital with back pains. She was found to be miscarrying and was admitted to hospital.

She asked for a termination because she was in agony, but this was refused.

He went on: “A doctor said it was the law - that this is a Catholic country. Savita said, `I am neither Irish not Catholic' but they said there was nothing they could do.”

He said the doctor said that the baby would not survive, but that as long as there was a foetal heartbeat “there was nothing they could do.” Three days followed, he added, in which the heartbeak was checked several times a day.

His wife's condition deteriorated until, he said: “The nurse came running. She just told me to be brave and she took me near Savita and said, `Will you be OK to be there during her last few minutes?' I said yes.

“It was all in their hands and they just let her go. How can you let a young woman go to save a baby who will die anyway? Savita could have had more babies.

“What is the use in being angry? I've lost her. I am talking about this because it shouldn't happen to anyone else. It has been very hard to understand how this can happen in the 21st century.”

The cause of her death was given as septicaemia and e-coli.

A left-wing member of the Irish parliament, Clare Daly, declared: “A woman has died because Galway University Hospital refused to perform an abortion needed to prevent serious risk to her life.

“This is a situation we were told would never arise. An unviable foetus was given priority over the woman's life, who unfortunately and predictably developed septicaemia and died.”

Health minister Dr James Reilly told the Dublin parliament: “If it becomes apparent - and I can't say with any certainty one way or the other although I doubt it - that there was any hesitation here because of moral or religious beliefs, then that would be an extremely serious matter.”

Socialist member Joe Higgins said it was “a monstrous and medieval position in the Ireland of the 21st century.”

Twenty years ago a controversial case in which a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, a pregnant and suicidal rape victim, was permitted to travel to Britain for a termination.

This represented a relaxation in the actual position on abortion, but since then six successive governments have veered away from attempting to enact legislation to give legal effect to this.

The authorities have lately however come under pressure from Europe to clarify what exactly the legal position is, especially since the European Court of Human Rights handed down a ruling critical of the existing confusion.

The government is due to report to Europe shortly what progress it has made. The current tragic case will propel the issue to the top of the political agenda.