How the death of Savita Halappanavar changed the abortion debate

The death of Savita Halappanavar five years ago has not yet lead to a transformation of the law on abortion but change will surely happen before much longer, writes Alison O’Connor

Five years ago today Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital. News of her death spread rapidly bringing our long fought domestic abortion wars on to the global stage.

‘Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist’ ran a headline from the India Times, just one of a multitude in the international media that followed her death. The report underneath stated how in a shocking incident, a 31-year-old Indian dentist had died in Ireland from blood poisoning after doctors refused to terminate her 17-week-long pregnancy. It also contained the by now infamous line where the distressed Savita, asking for a termination, was told: “This is a Catholic country”. Google the name of the 31-year-old Indian dentist now and 94,000 results come up.

The reaction at home was swift. The anger felt by people spilled on to the streets. Candlelit vigils took place all over the country.

Those who may have felt a slight ambivalence, or a desire to not become involved in the debate, felt compelled to express their anger publicly that in modern day Ireland a woman died because her pregnancy had not been terminated.

This day last week, the Galway Pro-Choice Twitter account posted that it would begin to tell Savita’s story, as told by her husband Praveen, posting her last moments in 2012 hour by hour. An 8pm tweet on Thursday night read: “Praveen told Savita’s life is ‘on a wire’”. Another at 11am yesterday stated she was “very ill and no responding to treatment. Up to 40 of Savita’s friends gathering in the ICU waiting area”.

We first heard Savita’s name when the story broke in The Irish Times on November 14, 2012, revealing two investigations were under way into the death of a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant, at University Hospital Galway the previous month.

We read how Savita Halappanavar presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.

At that time, our abortion debate was somewhat in abeyance, and had been since the 2002 referendum for an amendment aimed at setting aside the threat of suicide as grounds for a legal abortion. It was narrowly defeated. But as has been the cyclical way of this matter in Irish life, abortion had been just about due for further airing after three women took a case against Ireland.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 the State had failed to provide clarity on the legal availability of abortion in circumstances where the mother’s life is at risk. Savita’s death meant abortion once again exploded into our public debate but was also being scrutinised internationally.

We had come to international attention previously with the 1992 X case, in which the High Court prevented a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling abroad for an abortion.

But appalling and all as that case was, it did not involve a death and it pre-dated the 24/7 news cycle, and social media, where people flocked to express their dismay. It also allowed for word to spread about vigils being organised around the country.

The death was a galvanising moment and, as our politicians looked on, including the then taoiseach Enda Kenny, it became clear something had to be done.

Today marks Savita’s fifth anniversary, but yesterday also saw a highly significant anniversary for the women of Ireland — it was the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act legalising pregnancy terminations in the UK. If Savita’s death brought a new impetus to doing something about abortion in Ireland, then the introduction of that legislation has meant that for decades Irish abortions have been taking place in their hundreds of thousands, but just not on this island.

The issue has hardly been out of the news since Savita’s death. We had the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act, which came into force at the beginning of 2014, setting out the circumstances in which a woman can have an abortion where there is a “real and substantial” risk to the life of the pregnant woman or girl, including suicide. It also introduced a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment for having or assisting in an unlawful abortion. Subsequently Enda Kenny established the Citizen’s Assembly to examine the issue of the Eighth Amendment which recognises the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child.

But the nature of the debate has changed markedly in recent years, not least with the impressive mobilisation of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment which is an amendment of over 100 organisations including human rights, feminist and pro-choice organisations, trade unions, health organisations, NGOs, community organisations and many others. Just weeks ago, tens of thousands took to the streets of Dublin in the annual March for Choice.

Where only one or two Irish women, decades ago, would have admitted to having undergone an abortion, a number of high profile women have come forward and spoken about how they have travelled. Equally the voices of couples in the Terminations for Medical Reasons Group, parents affected by a diagnosis of fatal and severe foetal anomalies, have made a huge difference to the debate.

Previously our politicians would have feared the might of the anti-abortion lobby, still a force to be reckoned with, and how their stance on terminations might affect their electoral chances in their constituencies. But in the years since Savita’s death, those fears have expanded to also include the consequences from those who are demanding liberalisation.

This is why the politicians feel the stakes are so high as we gear up for another abortion referendum at the beginning of next summer, with widespread uncertainty surrounding what question will be put to the people on the ballot paper.

In an interesting twist, the looming referendum will likely stabilise our politics as neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil would wish to go to the country with this high profile divisive issue likely to become front and centre of a general election campaign.

Clearly our politicians also have personal opinions and beliefs surrounding abortion and not just electoral concerns.

Parsing his contributions, it does seems that while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has pledged to hold a referendum, he falls on the conservative side of the argument.

He appears likely to back terminations in the event of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and a serious threat to a woman’s health.

He has gone global on that, telling the New York Times recently: “While I don’t accept the view that the unborn child, the foetus, if you prefer that term, should have equal rights to an adult woman, to the mother, I don’t share this view that the baby in the womb, the foetus, whatever term you want to use, should have no rights at all.”

A number of his colleagues around the Cabinet table feel similarly, although as it is in the rest of society, there is a spectrum of views. However the Fine Gael ministers do not yet have an agreed position, as they continue to grapple with the issue.

Within the party, the polarisation of views can be found in the utterly opposing views of two of the Fine Gael members on the Oireachtas Committee charged with considering the Eighth Amendment — Kate O’Connell and Peter Fitzpatrick. At one meeting the Louth TD claimed a referendum yes vote would result in abortion being used as “contraception” and cited research saying a foetus can feel pain in its early stages.

His remarks drew criticism from his Dublin Bay South party colleague Ms O’Connell. She said the claims were “just untruths” and her party colleague was “just putting out lies”.

On the other side, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is even more conservative on the issue. But he did vote for the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill and appears to accept politically that change is needed in relation to situations such as rape, and for those who received a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

A majority of TDs and senators in his party fall on the conservative side of the argument. At the recent Ard Fheis, members voted by a significant majority to support a motion which calls for the party to oppose “any attempt to diminish the constitutional rights of the unborn”.

However, there are also influential voices within the party who seek significant change.

All eyes in Leinster House are on the Oireachtas committee, chaired very ably by Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone, in very trying circumstances. She and her colleagues have done a commendable job so far as they try to work their way through the labyrinthine world of Ireland and abortion.

They do so with the repeated protests of Independent TD Mattie McGrath and independent senator Ronan Mullen, who cry foul at every turn, saying the process is biased and the witnesses that have been called are all on one side of the argument.

Subsequently, those identified with their “side” have changed their mind about appearing before the committee. It is hard not to conclude the discrediting of the committee as a tactic is related to their realisation change is indeed on the way, and the stranglehold on this issue by the pro life side over decades is loosening.

Both FF and FG are in contact behind the scenes, trying to work out what proposals would get voted through the Dáil ahead of a referendum. Both parties have said members are free to vote with their conscience in an abortion vote and are not subject to a party whip. According to sources from within Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, not too subtle pressure is being exerted on Oireachtas members by colleagues to state their individual positions in order to try and put a halt to a change.

A brief but crude remark from one very well placed source summed it up: “What’s been going on in here is a mind-fuck. The fundamentalists in both parties are trying to tell people that a conscience vote means no change.”

At one point there was also a push for “multiple choice questions” to be put to the people in an abortion referendum, described by another source as “crazy”. It’s been interesting to watch members of the committee, most of whom make clear efforts to brief themselves and come in knowing what questions they want to ask the various witnesses. Not unlike the Citizens Assembly, it is possible to observe their awakening to the realities of the situation surrounding abortion for women in Ireland.

They have chosen very well in their witnesses, and while the medical experts have incensed the anti abortion side, the Oireachtas members for the most part appear to recognise that what these doctors are saying reflects their experience of clinical practice over many decades.

This week, couples who were diagnosed with severe or fatal foetal anomalies and were forced to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancies, told the committee they were left feeling “like medical refugees”.

Just like the Citizens Assembly members, they too, to use that awful word, are clearly on a “journey” and while very fundamental positions remain to be held by Mr McGrath, Mr Mullen and Mr Fitzpatrick, it seems that others like Fianna Fáil’s James Browne, seen as conservative on the issue, are giving it considerable thought as they listen and learn.

They are listening to the words of the invited guests such as professor of obstetrics and gynaecology Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, who authored the report examining Savita’s death, and who told them making abortion illegal only served to promote illegal abortions.

Professor Sabaratnam Arulkumaran

“Those women with influence and financial resources will get it performed in a safe environment. Those who are poor with less influence will resort to unsafe methods,” he said.

The committee voted on October 18 not to retain Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution in a proposal that was made by Sinn Féin and seconded by Fianna Fáil. At that time, Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers said the vote demonstrated the status quo is not acceptable and change was required.

What exactly all that deliberating by the committee means remains to be seen. While the politicians are in the thick of the debate, it is hard to see too much attention being paid to the work of the committee by the public. Equally, while the Citizen’s Assembly surprised everyone with their liberal recommendations, including those who watched it closely, they did not have to face the electorate afterwards or the realities of a minority government.

How can the Government expect or hope to bring the Irish public on a similar journey in a referendum that is bound to be highly divisive, but equally perhaps the public “middle ground” is ahead of their national politicians.

The other unknown is whether the Repeal the Eighth side will accept that pragmatism will have to come into play and that the politics, however unpalatable, do matter.

How do they propose to carry that crucial “middle ground” in a referendum? Would they see it as a step in the right direction to have the Eighth Amendment removed from the Constitution but to only have very limited access to abortion available?

If the answer to both those questions is no, what will happen to all of the inevitable fury that would be vented against politicians?

A silent vigil is being held in Dublin today organised by the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, as well as 20 vigils nationwide. Coalition convenor Ailbhe Smyth believes Savita’s very sad death was a “crux” moment in the debate, bearing in mind it came after the ABC cases in the European Court of Human Rights and that abortion was due back on our political agenda as a result.

“There was always a cyclical thing about abortion. Since the referendum in 2002, there had been so much change in Ireland and people wanted to express their disgust at what had happened. They didn’t care about the finer detail, just that this was a woman who needed an abortion who didn’t get it and she died… In cases like Savita’s abortion saves lives.”

The Committee on the Eighth, she said, has heard from leading experts on maternity healthcare in recent weeks. “Their opinion was unequivocal: if it weren’t for the Eighth Amendment, Savita Halappanavar would be alive today.”

However, for Cora Sherlock, spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Campaign, this anniversary is being used by the coalition to advance their cause since it comes in the midst of the commmittee’s deliberations.

She understood, she said, that many attending the vigils are sincere and would be upset but agreeing with Mr McGrath and Mr Mullen, she believes the committee process is “very flawed… and a complete betrayal of democracy — 26 speakers were invited with just three in favour of keeping the Eighth Amendment. That’s an insult to the public footing the bill for it who deserve to hear from both sides”.

Ms Sherlock said Savita’s death was a personal tragedy but it has been completely misrepresented from the very beginning. “It was the death of a mother and her child but has been used to push the repeal of the Eighth Amendment… To say that the Eighth Amendment was responsible for Savita’s death, I feel very upset about that as a woman.”

Whatever occurs over the next six months or so, the name Savita Halappanavar will forever be associated with the Irish abortion debate, tragically for her husband Praveen and her family, who continue to mourn her death. However, it cannot yet be said that Savita’s death marked an actual turning point in the debate that has convulsed Irish society for so long. But next year, by the time her sixth anniversary arrives, and we will have once again voted on abortion, it will be quite incredible if it cannot be said by then.


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