Women's rights and health activists are outraged after reports that a pregnant woman in Ireland died after she was denied an abortion that might have saved her life. Savita Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she showed up at a hospital in Galway last month, complaining of back pain. Doctors quickly determined that she was having a miscarriage and chose to let it run its course. After spending a full day in "severe pain" and understanding that the baby could not be saved, Halappanavar asked for the pregnancy to be terminated. The hospital refused, reportedly telling the couple that "this is a Catholic country" and there was nothing it could do as long a heartbeat could be detected.

It was another two and half days before the heartbeat stopped and the fetus was removed, but by then the damage had been done. Halappanavar had developed septicemia and E. coli infections. She spent another four days in intensive care and died a week after entering the hospital.

Abortion is completely illegal in Ireland, but can technically be allowed if "there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother." In other words, it's not enough for the mother to be in pain or at risk of complications. They have to reasonably believe that she will die without it. Now an investigation is underway as to whether the hospital acted properly and Halappanavar's family is considering legal action. She and her husband are Hindus from India, but both lived and worked in Ireland.

There are also already calls being made for the Republic of Ireland to back off what is are some of the strictest anti-abortion rules in the world. Just days before Halappanavar's ordeal, the first legitimate women's health clinic to offer abortions opened across the border in Northern Ireland, which operates under different laws, but faces an equally strident pro-life opposition. (Abortion has been legal in the UK since the 1960s, but Northern Ireland has never enacted the law that allows it.) The tough rules lead as many 4,000 women to leave the country in search of abortions each year. 

One writer called the treatment of Halappanavar "cruelty disguised as piety, cowardice misrepresented as principle," saying that even if she hadn't died, the pain alone should have justified the procedure. Arguments over just these kinds of abortion exemptions—and the often foolish comments made by some conservatives—were part of a major debate the helped swing several key election in the U.S. this year.