Ireland searches its soul with abortion inquest

An inquest which could trigger significant changes to the way Irish health authorities handle abortion will be conducted this week.

The inquest will look into the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died from suspected septicaemia after medical staff refused her an abortion at University Hospital Galway last October.

Widower Praveen said the couple repeatedly requested a termination but that staff refused because there was a heartbeat. He was told at the time that Ireland "is a Catholic country".

The case has already triggered government commitments to introduce specific regulations to allow abortion if there is a real and substantial threat to the mother's life, including suicide.

Those regulations were technically already in place, but the legal framework has been left confused and vague – a situation which critics say discourages medical staff from conducting abortions.

The case has also triggered widespread pro- and anti-abortion protests, as Ireland starts to confront the legislative fudge of its arrangements.

A review by the Health Service Executive (HSE) left the widower unimpressed and he is now pinning his hopes on the inquest, which will hear from several experts.

He is not ruling out taking the Irish government to the European courts in pursuit of a public inquiry after the inquest.

The HSE report said there was an over-emphasis on the foetal heartbeat and that staff failed to recognise the life-threatening state of the mother in time. It also cited a confusion over Irish law.

Health watchdog Higa is meanwhile conducting a review of the quality of service provided by the HSE.