DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's government pledged on Thursday to clarify its abortion laws after an Indian woman who was refused a termination died from blood poisoning in an Irish hospital.
Thousands took to the streets to protest on Wednesday after news broke of the death of Savita Halappanavar of septicaemia following a miscarriage 17 weeks into her pregnancy.
Activists in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, which has some of the world's most restrictive laws on abortion, say the refusal by doctors to terminate the pregnancy earlier may have contributed to her death.
"I was deeply disturbed yesterday by what Savita's husband said. I don't think as a country we should allow a situation where women's rights are put at risk in this way," Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore told parliament on Thursday.
"There is no question of equivocation. We need to bring legal clarity to this issue and that is what we are going to do."
Irish law does not specify under what circumstances the threat to the life or health of the mother is high enough to justify a termination, leaving doctors to decide. Critics say this means doctors' personal beliefs can play a role.
Halappanavar was admitted to hospital in severe pain on October 21 and asked for a termination after doctors told her the baby would not survive, according to her husband Praveen.
The foetus was surgically removed when its heartbeat stopped days later, but her family believes the delay contributed to the blood poisoning that killed Halappanavar on October 28.
Praveen said he would wait for the results of an investigation before deciding whether to sue, but that Ireland's Roman Catholic tradition appeared to have been a factor in the decision to deny a termination.
"I am still in shock. It is hard to believe that religion can mean somebody's life," Praveen Halappanavar told Reuters. He said he planned to return to Ireland from India, where he travelled with his wife's body.
The Irish health authority (HSE) has launched an inquiry which the health minister said must "stand up to the scrutiny of the world." Irish media said Praveen would be interviewed.
The Indian couple were resident and working in Ireland, he as an engineer and she as a dentist.
Despite a dramatic waning of the influence of the Catholic Church, which dominated politics in Ireland until the 1980s, successive governments have been loath to legislate on an issue they fear could alienate conservative voters.
Fine Gael, the senior partner in Ireland's ruling coalition, told supporters before a recent election that it would not introduce new laws allowing abortion during its five-year term, despite pressure from its junior partner Labour to act.
The government said it had received long-delayed recommendations from an expert panel on introducing new rules on abortion, and would report before the end of the month.
Four out of five Irish voters support a change in the law to permit abortion in cases where a mother's life is at risk, according to a recent opinion poll.
But a vocal anti-abortion minority has dominated the debate on abortion in Ireland in the past, with campaigners arguing that the adoption of legislation or guidelines for medical terminations would bring in abortion through the back door.
In 1992, when challenged in the "X-case" involving a 14-year-old rape victim, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was permitted when the woman's life was at risk, including from suicide. A European Court of Human Rights in 2010 ruled that Ireland must clarify what this means in practice.
"This is exactly what the (European) court was complaining about ... The court has not said Ireland must or must not have abortion, they said they have to clarify circumstances," said Ronan McCrea, a barrister and lecturer in law at University College London.
"The vagueness ... gives excessive scope to doctors to follow their own personal views or it means even if they want to give the treatment, they'll fall foul of the law," he said.
Halappanavar's death has dominated debate in Ireland's parliament since news of it broke on Wednesday. Her photograph was spread across front pages of all Ireland's major newspapers on Thursday, while editorials demanded action from politicians.
The fact that she is a foreign national has heightened the government's embarrassment. The story was on the front of several large Indian newspapers and family members were featured on national television.
The Indian government said on Thursday it deeply regretted Halappanavar's death. "The death of an Indian national in such circumstances is a matter of concern," a spokesman said.
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Delhi; Editing by Louise Ireland)