By Lorraine Turner and Conor Humphries
DUBLIN | Fri Nov 23, 2012 11:54am EST
(Reuters) - Ireland has opened a new investigation into the death of a woman denied an abortion of her dying fetus, as the government scrambled to stem criticism of its handling of an incident that polarized the overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year old dentist, was admitted to hospital in severe pain on October 21 and asked for a termination after doctors said her baby would not survive, according to husband Praveen, but in a country with some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws, surgeons would not remove the fetus until its heartbeat stopped days later.
Husband Praveen Halappanavar, who believes the delay contributed to the blood poisoning that killed his wife on October 28, has said he would not cooperate with an investigation already launched by the country's health service because he did not believe it would be neutral.
On Friday, the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) watchdog, which is government-funded but independent of the state health service, said it had also launched an investigation after receiving information from the health service and University Hospital Galway, where Halappanavar died.
A solicitor acting on behalf of the husband said the new inquiry was unlikely to be enough to satisfy his client.
"My client has always made his position very clear ... He wants a public inquiry. He has made it clear he wants to get to the truth of the matter, so I don't think that the framework of HIQA will suffice," Gerard O'Donnell, told RTE radio.
He added that the next step would be to consider an application to the European Court of Human Rights, which criticized Ireland's abortion ban in 2010.
Halappanavar's death has reopened a decades-long debate over whether the government should legislate to explicitly allow abortion when the life of the mother is at risk.
Irish law does not specify exactly when the threat to the life 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.
Though the influence of the Catholic Church over Irish politics has waned since the 1980s, successive governments have been loath to legislate on an issue they fear could alienate conservative voters.
CALL TO CLARIFY
Ireland's abortion stance is enshrined in a 1983 constitutional amendment that intended to ban abortion in all circumstances. 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.
But successive governments refused to make clear the circumstances under which a threat would make an abortion legal. After several challenges, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that Ireland must clarify its position.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose ruling Fine Gael party made an election pledge not to introduce new laws allowing abortion, said last week he would not be rushed into a decision on the issue.
The government was forced into an embarrassing u-turn this week when it removed three Galway-based consultants from the health service inquiry following criticism from Praveen Halappanavar.
The issue has raised tensions between Fine Gael and the more socially liberal Labour Party, its junior coalition partner, which has campaigned for a clarification of the country's abortion rules.
The country's president, Michael D. Higgins, a former member of the Labour Party, weighed into the debate this week when he said an investigation was needed that satisfied the dead woman's family.
Opposition party Sinn Fein introduced a motion to parliament on Wednesday calling for parliament to legislate on abortion, but it was rejected.
"Successive governments over the past 20 years have failed in respect of legislation. That failure is in large measure due to fear or cowardice," said Mary Lou McDonald, vice president of Sinn Fein.
(Editing by Will Waterman)