In the 1992 case, a 14-year-old girl identified in court only as "X'' successfully sued the government for the right to have an abortion in England. She had been raped by a neighbor. When her parents reported the crime to police, the attorney general ordered her not to travel abroad for an abortion, arguing this would violate Ireland's constitution.
The Supreme Court ruled she should be permitted an abortion in Ireland, never mind England, because she was making credible threats to commit suicide if refused one. During the case, the girl reportedly suffered a miscarriage.
Since then, Irish governments twice have sought public approval to legalize abortion in life-threatening circumstances — but excluding a suicide threat as acceptable grounds. Both times voters rejected the proposed amendments.
Legal and political analysts broadly agree that no Irish government since 1992 has needed public approval to pass a law that backs the Supreme Court ruling. They say governments have been reluctant to be seen legalizing even limited access to abortion in a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic.
An abortions right group, Choice Ireland, said Halappanavar might not have died had any previous government legislated in line with the X judgment. Earlier this year, the government rejected an opposition bill to do this.
"Today, some 20 years after the X case, we find ourselves asking the same question: If a woman is pregnant, her life in jeopardy, can she even establish whether she has a right to a termination here in Ireland?" said Choice Ireland spokeswoman Stephanie Lord.
Coincidentally, the government said it received a long-awaited expert report Tuesday proposing possible changes to Irish abortion law shortly before news of Savita Halappanavar's death broke. The government commissioned the report two years ago after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland's inadequate access to abortions for life-threatening pregnancies violated European Union law.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, identifies Ireland as an unusually safe place to be pregnant. Its most recent report on global maternal death rates found that only three out of every 100,000 women die in childbirth in Ireland, compared with an average of 14 in Europe and North America, 190 in Asia and 590 in Africa.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.