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Apology made in Irish abortion case

Woman died after Irish hospital denied procedure

Praveen Halappanavar’s wife, Savita, had been hospitalized with pain and knew the fetus would die.

Niall Carson/Associated Press

Praveen Halappanavar’s wife, Savita, had been hospitalized with pain and knew the fetus would die.

DUBLIN — The husband of a woman who died after being denied an abortion in an Irish hospital accepted an apology Thursday from a midwife who, when explaining why her plea for a potentially life-saving abortion was rejected, said Ireland was ‘‘a Catholic country.’’

The apology came during a coroner’s inquest this week into the Oct. 28 death in University Hospital Galway of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist living in the western Ireland city.

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Arguments over her death have sparked large public protests on both sides of the abortion debate, and forced the government to take action to clarify when the law permits abortion to end a life-threatening pregnancy.

Such practices supposedly were legalized by a 1992 Supreme Court judgment, but governments since have refused to pass backing legislation because of strong antiabortion sentiment in the predominantly Catholic nation. Abortion rights advocates argue that this legal confusion directly contributed to Halappanavar’s death.

Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when, hospitalized for pain, doctors informed her that the fetus would die. As her miscarriage pains worsened over the next three days, doctors refused her pleas for a termination because they could still detect a fetal heartbeat. By the time the fetus did die, Halappanavar was suffering from blood poisoning and died of organ failure 3½ days later.

The inquest is seeking to identify flaws in her care and rule whether an abortion might have saved her life.

Her widower, Praveen, in November accused hospital authorities of risking his wife’s life unnecessarily in defense of Catholic antiabortion doctrine. He said one hospital official had bluntly told him, when they protested that as Hindus they should be permitted an abortion, that they could not because Ireland was Catholic.

The senior midwife at the hospital, Ann Maria Burke, took the stand on Wednesday.

She surprised many by admitting that she had made the ‘‘Catholic country’’ comment and apologized directly to Praveen Halappanavar, who was present in the Galway courtroom.

‘‘It was not said in the context to offend her. I’m sorry how it came across,’’ Burke testified. ‘‘It does sound very bad now, but at the time I didn’t mean it that way.”

She was referring to referendums in 1992 and 2002 on proposed amendments to the constitution, which bans abortion.

In both cases, the government sought public approval for legalizing abortions to stop a physical threat to the woman’s life, but excluding a threat of suicide as reasonable grounds to grant an abortion.

The Supreme Court had ruled that credible suicide threats also should be sufficient grounds. Voters on both sides of the issue rejected both measures, leaving the legality of life-saving abortions in legal limbo.

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