The HSE is to appoint an independent external expert to help it investigate the treatment of Savita Halappanavar, whose death prompted thousands to take to the streets to demand that the Government legislate for the X case ruling on abortion.
Ms Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she died at University Hospital Galway on Oct 28 after suffering a miscarriage and septicaemia. Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, alleged doctors refused several requests in the previous days for a medical termination because the foetal heartbeat was still present.
He claims he was told: “This is a Catholic country.”
Despite the fact that more than two weeks has elapsed since the 31-year-old dentist died, the HSE admitted it still has not completed the terms of reference which its national incident management team will use to review Ms Halappanavar’s treatment. It was “in the process” of appointing an independent, external expert in obstetrics and gynaecology to that team. It also confirmed nobody had been placed on leave arising from this incident.
Health Minister James Reilly said the medical staff involved in the case were entitled to due process, adding that he doubted that a Catholic ethos had caused “hesitation” in properly treating Ms Halappanavar, but could not be sure. He said it was a “terrible tragedy”, but also “an emotionally traumatic time” for the staff, who were “entitled to due process”.
However, he added: “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.”
In tandem with an internal inquiry at Galway University Hospital and a second HSE investigation — which could take three months to complete — the Coalition is now under severe pressure to legislate for the 1992 Supreme Court ruling on the X case.
The court found that abortion was permissible in Ireland in cases where there was a risk to the mother’s life, including the risk of suicide.
However, successive governments have failed to introduce legislation which would clarify the instances where a mother’s life is deemed to be at risk.
After a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling on the issue placed an onus on the State to introduce such a clarifying framework, the Government set up an expert group to advise how best to do it. The group gave its report to Dr Reilly’s department on Tuesday.
However, while the State is obliged to provide a “progress report” to the ECHR by the end of this month, this does not mean it has to have the framework in place by then.
It is thought the Coalition will seek to kick the issue to touch until early next year because of the political sensitivity involved. Fine Gael is regarded as pro-life, and Labour as pro-choice, but there are deep divisions on the issue.
“I will consider the content and implications of the report before discussing them with my Cabinet colleagues,” said Dr Reilly.
Last night, almost 2,000 people protested outside Leinster House in Dublin while in Cork, 200 people, including members of the Indian community, gathered for a candlelit vigil in front of the Opera House. At both venues, there were demands for the Government to legislate for the X case ruling.
Pro-life groups said that under current medical practice in Ireland, Ms Halappanavar should not have been denied treatment necessary to save her life. However, they insisted the case should not be seen as an argument to legislate for the practice.
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