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Doctors dropped from Ireland probe of woman who died after being denied abortion

DUBLINThe Irish government removed three doctors Tuesday from its investigation into the death of an ailing woman who was denied an abortion in an Irish hospital, a case that has exposed Ireland to worldwide criticism.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny told lawmakers he hoped the move - barely 24 hours after Ireland unveiled the seven-member panel - would allow the woman's widower to support the probe into why Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist, died Oct. 28 while hospitalized in Galway.

Kenny's U-turn came hours after her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, said he would refuse to talk to the investigators and would not consent to their viewing his wife's medical records because three of the Galway hospital's senior doctors had been appointed as investigators.

Kenny said that the three doctors would be replaced by other officials "who have no connection at all with University Hospital Galway. In that sense the investigation will be completely and utterly independent."

"A man's wife has died. Nothing will bring her back," Kenny said. "But it is important for our country, for our people, for the family, for everybody concerned to ascertain the truth of what happened here. And this investigation can hopefully do that with the cooperation of Mr. Halappanavar."

Halappanavar did not immediately respond to the prime minister's reversal. He previously also faulted the Irish probe on several points, because it would not be a public inquiry involving witnesses testifying under oath.

His wife was 17 weeks pregnant with what would have been their first child when she was admitted to Galway's hospital Oct. 21 suffering from severe pain. Doctors quickly established she was miscarrying, with her cervix already dilated and amniotic fluid leaking.

But for three days, the husband said, doctors refused their requests for a termination because the 17-week-old fetus still had a heartbeat.

Praveen Halappanavar said one of the doctors insisted they couldn't remove a living fetus because Ireland "is a Catholic country." He said five hospital officials and a family friend witnessed this Oct. 24 comment at his wife's bedside.

After the fetus died Oct. 25, its remains were surgically removed, but Savita Halappanavar's health rapidly faded as internal infections spread and her internal organs gradually failed. A coroner determined she died from blood poisoning and e.coli bacteria potentially contracted at the hospital.

The chairman of the probe, Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, said he hoped to have a face-to-face meeting with Halappanavar to persuade him to change his mind about talking to investigators because his testimony on his wife's care would be central to identifying problems.

Arulkumaran, a native Sri Lankan who practices and teaches at St. George's Hospital in London, is one of the world's leading authorities on fetal monitoring and maternal health.

The case has highlighted Ireland's failure to legislate in line with a two-decade-old Supreme Court judgment that women should receive abortions in cases where the pregnancy places their lives at risk. The court found this should be the only exception to Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Halappanavar said he doubted Ireland would have done anything public had he not spoken out.

He noted that he received zero communication from the hospital and Health Services Executive during the two weeks following his wife's death, when he returned her body to India for a Hindu funeral and cremation.

"It is a pity because I thought Ireland would care more for someone so young who died. That let me down. ... Maybe Savita was born to change the laws here," he told The Irish Times.

The European Court of Human Rights two years ago ruled that Ireland was placing pregnant women in jeopardy by not providing a clear law defining when life-saving abortions can be performed. Ireland has yet to reply substantively to that judgment.

The government insists it should not present any abortion legislation until after the Halappanavar investigation is completed in February. It vowed to block an opposition bill unveiled Tuesday seeking the parliament's immediate approval of the 1992 Supreme Court judgment.

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