by D Sohi
On the 25th May 2018, Irish citizens, both at home and coming in from abroad, embarked on their journeys to voting centres amid a buzz akin to the UK’s EU Referendum and Scotland’s Independence Referendum. Abortion had become a fiercely-contested option in this religious country for decades; for this referendum, wherever there was a group of ‘Yes’ campaigners, ‘No’ lobbyists were never too far away. Although the issue of abortion in Ireland had been brewing for years, one woman – an outsider – transformed the argument over faith, morality and women’s rights.
Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old, married dentist from Karnataka, India. In 2012, Savita was admitted to the University Hospital Galway with severe back pain. She was miscarrying. Despite several requests for an abortion, staff refused because Ireland was ‘a Catholic country’ and abortion was against the law. Because there was still a foetal heartbeat, staff refused to intervene. The 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution (1983) was implemented to recognise the equal right of a woman and unborn child. Abortions could not be carried out unless a there was significant threat to the mother’s life. Examples such pro-life propaganda claiming England’s abortion mills ‘grind Irish babies into blood that cries out to heaven for vengeance'. To a staunch nationalist, the idea of British abortion clinics assisting terminations of Irish babies could be construed as a form of genocide and a harkening to British rule. As Irish women flocked to the UK for covert abortions, this sentiment only grew.
Savita could have been saved. According to Dr Peter Boylan, Savita’s death could have been prevented if the pregnancy was terminated within three days of her admission to the hospital. The stipulation of a termination if the mother’s life was at risk didn’t materialise as Savita’s life deteriorated so rapidly that, if they were to go ahead with an abortion, it would have been too late anyway. This stipulation in the amendment left no room for medical interpretation and no awareness of different medical situations. Her death illuminated the flawed amendment’s belief that a woman’s and unborn child’s life would be held in equal regard. It has also been pointed out that staff persisting with investigations could have detected the seriousness of her state earlier. The Journal ie documents her health’s disintegration in tragic detail, which is too distressing for me to discuss in this piece. Savita was the end of a line of countless women punished by a law that placed restrictions on their bodies and, by extension, their sexuality.
Protests and rallies emerged in India and Ireland respectively. In Dublin, a rally marched from the Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square to Leinster House where a vigil took place. Banners declared ‘No more tragedies’ and ‘Never again.’ A mural in Portobello, Dublin poignantly imitates the photo of a bright and hopeful young woman used by the media when the news broke. This mural has become a shrine for women and their own stories of pregnancy, health scares and secret abortions and a symbol for judicial reform. Countless ‘Yes’ post-it notes are now attached to the wall with admissions of voting in the name of Savita and apologies that the referendum came too late. As of 18th June 2018, the mural has been taken into custody with plans for Dublin City Library and Archives to preserve and digitise the monument. These powerful messages convey how memorialised figures can transform a nation’s politics and vice versa. Ireland’s women needed someone to fight for and Savita provided that. A counter-argument may be that there are other tragic stories of women suffering under the 8th Amendment. The fight didn’t begin with Savita: outrage stirred in 1992 when a fourteen-year-old girl, who was raped, was prevented from travelling to the UK for an abortion. While her case led to the allowance of suicide as a cause for abortion, it still wasn’t enough to repeal the amendment.
So why was an Indian woman, not bygone Irish women, made the face of the movement? She was the last straw. She was the embodiment of female suffering under patriarchal regulation. Countless women were denied the decision to make for their own bodies, but a woman prevented by law from making her own decision for her own body – in 2012 – sparked many to say “Enough.” Women’s autonomy was to be respected and they were no longer to be seen as child-carriers. With so many changes occurring in the world, it was inevitable that another tragic victim would be the catalyst – the last, as on the 26th May 2018 it was revealed that Ireland had voted yes to repeal the 8th Amendment. Supporters of Savita, as well as her family, felt vindicated by this result. Her death wasn’t in vain.