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How the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar united the Irish people against Catholic influenced abortion law

In a dramatic defeat of the Catholic church’s influence, Ireland has voted by a landslide to legalise abortion. The Irish electorate voted by 14,29,981 votes to 7,23,632 in favour of abolishing the controversial constitutional amendment that gave equal legal status to lives of foetus and the woman carrying it. Unfortunate death of the 31 year old Savita Halappanavar, a dentist from India, living with her husband Praveen, triggered the nationwide movement. At 17 weeks pregnant she was looking forward to a life full of joy and possibilities. Her dreams were shattered on the day she was admitted in the University Hospital Galway on 21st October 2012, with complaints of intense back pain.

In the hospital, the medical staff concluded that a miscarriage was inevitable in Savita’s case. The foetal heartbeat could still be heard and Irish law stated that as long as there is a foetal heartbeat, medical intervention in the pregnancy is not allowed. Following the rupture of foetal membrane, Savita’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. Her family requested for a termination of pregnancy which was denied by the medical staff citing the said law. By 24th October, Savita was diagnosed with an infection and later went into septic shock. A week after she was admitted, on 28th October, she died.

During her ordeal at the hospital, Savita had reportedly requested the medical staff repeatedly for a termination of pregnancy to save her life. In reply, she was told, “This is a Catholic Country.” Savita reportedly even pleaded that she is neither Irish nor Catholic, but her requests went in vain.

Savita’s tragic death sparked a nation-wide stir in the country. All across Ireland, people took to streets marching, holding candlelight vigils and demanding legal access to abortion for women. Soon global organisations like Amnesty International and several activists joined in. Catholic bishops worldwide were against abortion. In 2013, a legal panel set up for an investigation into the incident gave a unanimous verdict that Savita Halappanavar could have survived if her pregnancy had been terminated on time.

In Ireland, abortions had been strictly illegal since 1861. The law has been challenged and criticised many times and as many as five referendums had been made so far. But till now there is no clear legal certainty available for medical practitioners on when to terminate a pregnancy. Under this law, even victims of rape, incest and cases of fatal foetal abnormality are not allowed an abortion, even if they are underage girls. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the state of Ireland has failed to provide clarity on the legal availability of abortion when a mother’s life is at risk. The particular clause in Ireland’s constitution, popularly called as the Eighth Amendment, has been a topic of protests and global outrage for a long time. Savita Halappanavar’s death opened the floodgates.

Though the clause was amended in 2013 allowing medical practitioners to terminate a pregnancy if the mother’s life is explicitly at risk, there were no provisions made for victims of rape, incest or cases of fatal foetal abnormality. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee also spoke against the clause and its implications. Finally, in 2017, a citizen’s assembly in the country voted 64% in favour of a change in the strict laws. The Irish government declared that it will hold a referendum vote to decide whether to change the law.

The date of the vote was 25th May. People of Ireland participated overwhelmingly in the referendum vote. There have been numerous campaigns. Irish people had been trending the hashtag #HomeToVoteYes, wearing T-shirts labelled ‘Repeal’ and hoping to bring down the law that barred women a basic right to their own health and lives.

Savita Halappanavar deserved the right to live. That right was taken from her because laws in the country that she lived did not give her the right to abort when her own life was at risk. If the eighth amendment is repealed, not only it will bring some much-awaited justice for the women in Ireland, it will bring at least some sense of gratification for the ageing parents of Savita, Mr Andanappa Yalagi and Mrs Akkamahadevi, whose loving, laughing daughter was snatched away from them for no fault of her own. An unborn child should have rights too, but when the pregnancy bears serious risks for the mother’s life, women should have a right to choose. Victims of rape or incest, where the pregnancy has been thrust upon a woman (in many cases an underage girl) should have the benefit of a flexible law that weighs physical, social and psychological risks of the unwanted pregnancy and allows the women a right to choose. While a termination in later weeks of pregnancy also bears risks for the mother, a permission for termination in the earlier weeks for the above-mentioned cases is awaited in Ireland.

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Sanghamitra
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