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Ireland to clarify law on abortion when mother's life is at risk

By Nic Robertson and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
updated 3:59 PM EST, Tue December 18, 2012
  • NEW: Lawyer: Widower wants to ensure that no other woman suffers the way his wife did
  • The Irish government plans to bring in new legislation and regulations on abortion
  • It is likely to be several months before the proposed legislation is finalized
  • The move follows controversy over the death of Savita Halappanavar in October

(CNN) -- Ireland's government is to introduce a new law and regulations to clarify that abortions are permissible when the life -- but not health -- of the mother is at risk, Minister of Health James Reilly announced Tuesday.

The decision, made in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, follows controversy over the death of Savita Halappanavar from blood poisoning seven weeks ago.

The government is acting on a report from an expert group on abortion, commissioned after a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights.

Read more: If Ireland had abortion rights

Death leads to abortion rally in Ireland

It is likely to be several months before the proposed legislation, which could prove divisive in the majority Catholic nation, is finalized.

Reilly said that he was aware of the strength of feeling around the issue of abortion, but that the government had a duty to ensure the safety of pregnant women in Ireland.

"For that purpose, we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman's life," he said in a statement.

"We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child."

The death of Halappanavar, an Indian-born dentist who had moved to Ireland, prompted outrage among many there and overseas.

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, says his wife was advised that her unborn baby would probably die. In extreme pain, she asked for the abortion but was told that Ireland is a Catholic country and an abortion could not be done while the fetus was alive.

Three days after the request for a termination was made, the fetus died and was removed. Four days later, on October 28, Savita Halappanavar died.

Inquiries were set up by Irish authorities after the 31-year-old's death, including one by the Health Service Executive, but none has yet reported back.

Praveen Halappanavar has demanded a full public inquiry but must wait to see what emerges from the other inquiries, his lawyer Gerard O'Donnell said.

He said his client had not yet commented on the government's announcement on new abortion legislation but predicted that the devil would be in the details of what is proposed.

O'Donnell said that based on the time he has spent with Halappanavar, his client "would not want this to happen to anyone else again, albeit it has come too late for Savita."

One of Halappanavar's principal motivations through this difficult time has been "to make sure nothing like this happens again," O'Donnell added.

Halappanavar has gone back to work but has not been able to return to the home he shared with his wife of several years, the lawyer said.

The proposed changes would bring the country's laws in line with a 1992 Irish Supreme Court ruling that established a woman's right to abortion when her life is at risk, including by suicide.

CNN's Richard Allen Greene and journalist Peter Taggart contributed to this report.

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