Who was Savita Halappanavar?
“Savita! Savita!” chanted men and women, young and old, who gathered at Dublin Castle last weekend to celebrate the news that, by a clear majority, Ireland had voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment that effectively bars women from having abortions under most circumstances. The case of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist originally from Karnataka, who died of septicaemia in 2012 after she was refused an abortion at University Hospital Galway, has been at the heart of the heated debate in the weeks running up to the May 25 vote.
The images of Savita that made their way onto billboards, placards, flyers, murals and social media — smiling confidently at the camera, her face framed by thick, lustrous black hair — represented to many what was so fundamentally wrong about the system. That a person so full of energy and with so much to live for could have her life cruelly cut short by laws out of tune with society’s march provoked widespread outrage.
What’s the situation?
Abortion has been illegal in Ireland as long as the state has existed, but lobbyists fearing change pushed for the 1983 Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It treated “the right to life of the unborn” child as equal to the right of life to the mother and followed a referendum in which over two-thirds supported the inclusion of the amendment, though on a turnout of 53%.
Over the coming year society changed rapidly, including supporting gay marriage in 2015. However, the abortion legislation remained firmly restrictive, allowing terminations only when there was a risk of suicide or harm to the health of the mother (but not in the event of rape). Attempts were made to ease restrictions, including through a case which made its way all the way to the European Court of Justice, to little avail.
While some who sought abortions were able to travel abroad, including to the U.K. where over 1,60,000 Irish women had terminations between 1980 and 2016, many were unable to do so.
What was her impact on vote?
The 2012 death of Halappanavar helped to catalyse a grass-roots campaign for change. Immediately after her death, protests, and candle-light vigils were held nationwide. While some pointed to the lack of clarity in legislation, many pushed for a fundamental change.
They included — powerfully — her parents who from the outset were adamant that laws needed to change fast to ensure no one suffered the fate of their daughter.
In the end, following weeks of formal campaigning, over 66% voted to scrap the amendment, while just one rural county, Donegal, voted to keep it. The government has emphasised the broad-based nature of the vote — cutting across age, class, gender and locality.
Leo Varadkar, the Prime Minister, had pledged a referendum on abortion after coming to power, though his precise views on what needed to change remained unclear. “The people have spoken,” he said after the result, which he said indicated “we trust women and we respect women to make their own decisions and their own choice.”
What happens now?
The government is pushing for the legalisation of abortions on request (and subject to medical advice) for the first 12 weeks, and in rarer cases up to 24 weeks. Legislation could be in place by year-end.
Will there be Savita’s Law?
There are pleas for the new law to be called Savita’s Law. The vote in Ireland has also spurred calls for a change across the border in Northern Ireland, where abortion rules remain highly restricted, compared with the rest of the U.K. The British government — eager to please its highly conservative Northern Irish ally, DUP, has pushed back against calls for change. Longer term, however, it is hard to see how political forces can ignore the powerful message sent by tragic cases such as Halappanavar’s.
(Adapted from The Hindu)