UK

Savita Halappanavar Inquest Begins As Irish Abortion Laws Set To Change In July

08/04/2013 08:43 BST

An inquest into the death of Savita Halappanavar Indian dentist after she suffered a miscarriage in an Irish hospital is scheduled to begin on Monday, as the Irish Government pledged it will publish new abortion laws in July.

Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway on October 21 last year and died a week later from suspected septicaemia, days after she lost her baby.

The 31-year-old's widower Praveen maintains the couple repeatedly requested a termination but were refused because the foetal heartbeat was present.

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A woman holds a picture of Savita Halappanava during a candle lit vigil outside Belfast City Hall, Northern Ireland

He says they were told Ireland "is a Catholic country".

The death of Mrs Halappanavar thrust the controversial issue of abortion in Ireland into the spotlight, with pro-choice and pro-life groups both staging intermittent demonstrations over the last few months.

The Government has committed to legislate and introduce regulations to allow abortion if there is a real and substantial risk to a woman's life, including the threat of suicide.

As it stands in under current Irish medical practice, doctors must treat an expectant mother and her unborn baby as equals.

This constitutional protection for the unborn child places a ban on abortion, but allows medical intervention to save the life of a woman in limited circumstances.

Doctors currently work under a combination of the law and guidelines set by the Irish Medical Council (IMC).

The IMC direction states that where rare complications arise during the care of a pregnant woman, a termination may be required at a stage where there is little or no hope of a baby surviving.

In such circumstances, doctors are allowed to intervene to terminate the pregnancy in a bid to save the mother's life, while still making every effort to save the baby.

Abortion has been legal in cases where there is a substantial risk to the mother's life since the 1992 Supreme Court ruling on the so-called X Case.

The ruling included a provision to allow abortion when there is a threat of suicide after a teenage rape victim asked the courts for permission to travel for an abortion.

Despite the court's decision more than 20 years ago, successive governments have failed to enact legislation to give the ruling full effect - until the current coalition.

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Praveen Halappanavar, the husband of Savita Halappanavar outside Galway Coroners court

The Department of Health announced its intention to introduce a combination of legislation and regulations for doctors to abide by in cases where there may be uncertainty.

Its decision came on the back of an expert group report on a separate court ruling - a European Court of Human Rights ruling on how to respond to the so-called ABC case.

In that judgment, the European court found the state violated the rights of a woman in remission from cancer who was forced to travel abroad to terminate her pregnancy.

The legislation and regulations to be published this July will reflect both court rulings.

The new regime will provide clear procedures that will enable pregnant women to determine whether they are entitled to a lawful abortion.

The statutory framework will also provide a defence for doctors from criminal prosecution.

The reforms will not make abortion freely available in Ireland for purely social or personal reasons.

At the inquest on Monday, several expert witnesses are expected to give evidence during the inquest in Galway city, scheduled for one week, including the former master of the National Maternity Hospital Dr Peter Boylan.

More than 50 statements have been furnished by health chiefs and gardai for the coroner, Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin, who has promised the inquest will be transparent and open to public scrutiny.