How An Indian Woman’s Death Propelled Abortion Rights in Ireland

Mural of Savita Halappanavar. Photo by Cormac Mc Mullan.
Cormac Mc Mullan took this photo of the mural about thirty minutes before the polls closed on the day of the referendum. People started to gather to leave notes and lay flowers. The next day, the pavement was full of tributes and the wall was covered in messages. Photo courtesy of Cormac Mc Mullan.

Savita Halappanavar died due to restrictive abortion rights in Ireland, but her tragedy propelled a landslide victory for women.

In the weeks after May 25, 2018, I received a firestorm of well wishes for my native land as the news spread internationally. Anyone who knew I was connected with Ireland sent their congratulations. I even received a text from my dentist. The reason? A women-led grassroots campaign had succeeded in changing one of the strictest abortion laws in the world. Almost seventy percent of voters supported a Repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. The final thread of patriarchal church-state control over women’s bodies had been cut. No one had seen it coming.

 
Immigrants everywhere tend to have an unspoken connection with each other that stems from having crossed the same internal borders.
 

Together For Yes was the hashtagable campaign slogan under which the pro-choice groups had converged. By contrast, the pro-life groups remained autonomous.

Migration is a part of our colonial and post-colonial story, and it is part of this story too. Many recent emigrants were still eligible to vote and they flew home en masse to do so in favor of repealing the Eighth Amendment. For the first time it seemed, Irish people were connecting with each other all over the world. We were connecting with the long lines of ancestral women at our backs. As we spoke and wrote and posted and shared, it became evident that this was about more than a single issue.

Immigrants everywhere tend to have an unspoken connection with each other that stems from having crossed the same internal borders. I have it with my doctor, a young Indian woman who works out of an office in midtown-Manhattan. She beamed over the New York Times cover depicting a group of Irish women celebrating the Repeal news. I told her the victory was in large part due to her compatriot, Savita Halappanavar. Like most of the people I had spoken to in New York, my doctor had not heard of her, but after hearing Savita’s story, she clasped her hands over her mouth and her eyes filled with tears.

 
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution had been adopted by the Irish people in 1983. It recognized equal rights for the mother and unborn.
 

Savita and her husband, Praveen, were Indian immigrants to Ireland. Praveen was an engineer and Savita trained to be a dentist. In the fall of 2012, when Savita was thirty-one years old, the couple was waiting with excitement to welcome their first child. But, at seventeen weeks gestation, Savita went to Galway University Hospital with severe back pain. She was having a septic miscarriage. Heartbroken, she and Praveen requested an early termination. Their request was denied. There was still a heartbeat, they were told, and this is a “Catholic country.”

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution had been adopted by the Irish people in 1983. It recognized equal rights for the mother and unborn, except in extenuating circumstances. In the intervening thirty years, women either traveled to England (mostly) to get an abortion, or they ordered abortive pills online and took them without medical supervision. An illegal abortion carried a sentence of up to fourteen years imprisonment for both the practitioner and the woman.

While the medical staff was arguing the ambiguities of Savita’s case, days passed and her infection progressed. One week after walking into Galway University Hospital, both she and her unborn daughter were dead. An inquest was carried out. It showed the hospital staff was unfamiliar with the law. But the law itself, with all its ambiguities, was finally revealed.

The death of Savita Halappanavar shook the Irish nation to its core. We had been exposed. Suddenly, we were seeing ourselves as the rest of the world saw us. In the mirror of the immigrant/outsider, we could see how unjustly we have always treated Irish women and girls. These are our structures and our laws. The shame turned to a rage that propelled and empowered us. Rallies began immediately. A new generation of women joined the ongoing fight for women’s rights. Savita Halappanvar’s bright, smiling face became an icon of the struggle.

For the people of Ireland, Savita’s death was a turning point. In recognition of her contribution to the country and to the world, activists are petitioning for the new legislation be called, “Savita’s Law.” All of the letters and notes left in vigil at her mural in Dublin will be digitally archived by Dublin City Library.

Today, women around the world, from our relatives in Northern Ireland to our friends in Argentina, are inspired by Ireland’s success in changing its oppressive law. The journey began with us, the Irish people, seeing ourselves, our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, in a vulnerable immigrant woman. She triggered our humanity. She changed the air. We are deeply indebted to her. She helped us find compassion for ourselves, for each other, for our ancestors, and tremendous hope for future generations. May she rest in peace, and may she never be forgotten.

Read about Margaret Sanger and the history of birth control.