Uproar over Savita Halappanavar’s death in 2012 has not only forced Ireland to lift abortion ban but also give women their long-pending right to make choices whether it is about abortion, pregnancy, sexual health, career or life, analyses Pari Saikia

A new dawn has broken over the pre-dominated Catholic Ireland after the country voted by a landslide margin to abolish the 1983-anti-abortion law, responsible for the death of Dr Savita Halappanavar. In 2012, the 31-year-old Indian-origin dentist died after she was denied termination of foetus by a hospital authority due to the State’s strict abortion law.

The vote in Ireland last week marked a historic victory in the fight for women’s reproductive rights as 68 per cent of voters backed the end of the eighth amendment. Anti-abortion activists, campaigners and locals give due credit of the move to Savita, saying that the country owes her a “great debt”.

Another campaign led by her father Andanappa Yalagi has now urged that the new pro-abortion law should be named as “Savita’s law”.

Calling the movement as “culmination of a quiet revolution”, the Prime Minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, who also supports pro-abortion law said, “What we see is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades.”

“The public has spoken. The result appears to be resounding … in favour of repealing the Eigth Amendment,” Varadkar said. 

The law that killed Savita

Abortion in Ireland is a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861. According to the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1983: “The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Savita died on October 28, 2012, after University Hospital Galway denied her abortion, a request made by her after she was contracted with an infection due to septic miscarriage. She was 17 weeks pregnant with her first child.

The hospital and Savita’s midwife cited reasons for denying the termination of the fetus as the same old ‘Irish law’ of 1983 that restricts abortion as Ireland is a “Catholic country”. Savita’s death immediately sparked a massive outrage across the world, questioning rights of a woman to take decisions and the anti-abortion law in particular, when it involves risking mother’s health and life. “Under Irish law, if there’s no evidence of risk to the life of the mother, our hands are tied as long there’s a fetal heart,” said a Consultant in an interview to Irish media post the incident.

An investigation by Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) further proved that Savita’s death was the result of restrictions by the Irish anti-abortion law that stated:

1 General lack of provision of basic, fundamental care, for example, not following up on blood tests.

2 Failure to recognise that she was at risk of clinical deterioration.

3 Failure to act or escalate concerns to an appropriately qualified clinician when there were signs of clinical deterioration.

Lesson Learnt

Many human rights groups have been nailing hard to make abortion legal in countries so that women could lead a life with freedom and dignity. “Governments should respect a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her reproductive life. A woman who decides to have an abortion must have access to the facilities and care that will enable her to terminate her pregnancy safely. Governments that prosecute and punish women who have had abortions penalize women for exercising their basic rights. These rights are no less compromised when a woman who decides to terminate a pregnancy can do so only by undertaking a serious risk to her life or health,” human rights groups pointed out.

There have been decades-long fights to legalise safe abortion — a reproductive right of every woman which has been denied time and again in many countries. A woman only has the right to her health, mind and body and nobody else, therefore, she should be independently allowed to take a decision whether she wants to have an abortion or not. And,  it is the duty of the government to ensure that her reproduction rights are allowed; provide safe medical care facilities. There should be zero inference from family, government or society.

What the death of Savita Halappanavar teaches us is that the women should now be given their long-pending rights to make choices whether it is about having an abortion, bearing a child, sexual health, career or life.