Clinton faces pressure to address abortion law on Ireland trip

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is being pressured to address the thorny topic of Irish abortion law when she visits Dublin Thursday on one of her last official foreign trips.

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A group of high-profile artists and academics, mostly Irish citizens based in the United States, has issued an open letter suggesting that Clinton publicly raise the issue of Ireland’s unclear yet restrictive abortion laws when she delivers a speech on human rights in the Irish capital.

Among the signatories to the letter are actor Gabriel Byrne, "Riverdance" composer Bill Whelan and a number of prominent novelists, including Colum McCann, Colm Tóibín, Peter Quinn and Belinda McKeon.

The letter asks Clinton to “consider addressing this very real and present danger to the lives and health of pregnant women.”

The effort is a response to the ongoing controversy in Ireland over the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar in the western city of Galway on Oct. 28.

Halappanavar, a native of India, had been admitted to a local hospital complaining of back pain and was found to be miscarrying. According to her husband, the couple’s repeated requests that the pregnancy be terminated were declined, with one member of the medical staff stating “this is a Catholic country.”

After the fetal heartbeat stopped, the dead fetus was removed and the ailing Halappanavar was later moved to the hospital’s ICU. She died as a result of septicemia.

The episode sparked an uproar in Ireland, with mass protests outside the national parliament and elsewhere. The case also received considerable publicity internationally, including in the United States.

Abortion for to all intents and purposes illegal in Ireland, but the legal backdrop to that reality is complicated.

The nation’s Supreme Court ruled 20 years ago that a woman was entitled to a termination if there was a real and substantial threat to her life. But that ruling was never given force in legislation. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland had breached its responsibilities by its “failure to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion in Ireland.”

Clinton has already visited Belgium and the Czech Republic during her overseas trip. The main purpose of her stop in Dublin is to attend a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She will also travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Friday.

Both Clinton and her husband are very popular in Ireland, largely as a consequence of the latter’s role, while president, in advancing the peace process that brought a de facto end to a three-decade violent struggle in the north.

Whether the secretary of State will wade into the abortion controversy remains to be seen. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the open letter.