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Legal ambiguity costs life

New Delhi, Nov. 15: The Indian woman who died in Ireland after being denied an abortion appears to have been a victim of ambiguity in Irish law that at times prevents doctors from doing their best for women with serious pregnancy complications, experts said.

The ambiguity in the law springs from a 20-year-old Irish Supreme Court ruling that allows abortion only if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of a pregnant woman but not if the complication merely threatens her health, medical and family planning experts said.

Savita Halappanavar, 31, died at the University Hospital Galway last month after a complication during pregnancy and septicaemia. Doctors there had allegedly turned down her requests for an abortion and removed her foetus only after the foetal heartbeat had stopped.

“Doctors in Ireland have been put in a position where they’re forced to wait until they perceive a real threat to a woman’s life before they can initiate abortion,” said Maeve Taylor, a policy officer with the Irish Family Planning Association, a non-government agency that has campaigned for change and clarity in the law for many years. The law does not specify at what point is a doctor allowed to intervene to save a woman’s life.

In a complication such as pre-eclampsia, where a woman’s life is under imminent threat, the decision to abort is relatively easy. But in other complications marked by a steady deterioration of the health of the foetus or the mother, the decision becomes difficult.

“Doctors are thus often prevented from exercising best practice,” Taylor told The Telegraph over the phone from Dublin. “We’ve been raising these concerns for many years. What happened to Savita is devastating. We offer our sympathies to her family.”

Sections of the Irish medical community have also expressed concern in the past that doctors have a legitimate fear that if they intervene too early, they may face life imprisonment which is the penalty for unjustified abortion under Ireland’s 1861 law.

“Doctors appear to be unsure at what stage of a serious complication in a pregnancy are they entitled to initiate abortion,” said Katherine ’Brien, a spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a medical charity in England that offers reproductive health services to women.

Some experts estimate that several thousand Irish women travel to England for abortions each year, but virtually all of these are planned abortions and not required due to medical emergencies. ’Brien recalled that last year a woman with cancer in remission had requested but was denied an abortion in Ireland. She had expressed her desire to travel to England but was too ill to travel. “Doctors need clear guidelines,” ’Brien said.

India’s external affairs ministry today said the tragic death of an Indian national in such circumstances is a matter of concern. In a statement, the ministry said it was awaiting the results of inquiries initiated by Irish authorities.

Savita’s death has rekindled the debate on the need for Ireland to clarify abortion rules.

“It is appalling that doctors might feel they have to wait until death is imminent before being able to intervene when treatment could have been offered much earlier,” Patricia Lohr, the medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“We urge the (Irish) government to act swiftly so that no woman suffers in this way again.”