The story of Savita Halappanavar, who died last month as a result of Ireland’s abortion ban, has sparked much debate over Ireland’s abortion laws and, in a broader sense, the issue of access to reproductive health care.
Savita went to a hospital in Ireland while experiencing severe back pain. The medical staff diagnosed her with miscarriage of a fetus with no chance of survival, but refused to perform an abortion because they detected a fetal heartbeat.
Several days passed before the heartbeat ceased and removal was allowed. But by this point, Savita had developed an infection that led to her death.
This is a tragic example, but one that unfortunately is quite predictable when women are unable to obtain legal abortion care. Abortion has been banned in the Republic of Ireland since 1983 by constitutional amendment, but traces back to an 1861 law. According to the Irish Family Planning Association, more than 4,000 women living in Ireland traveled to England and Wales for abortions in 2011, because the service is not legally available in Ireland.
Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that despite apparent declines in this number, more women may simply be disguising their home country, as “The number of women contacting a charity that helps people in Ireland seek abortions in Britain is set to double for the third year in a row.” (For more on the history of abortion law in Ireland, see this timeline, and “Ireland’s abortion ban: a history of obstruction and denial.”)
Here are some of the articles and analysis stemming from Savita’s death:
- Justice for Savita — Jessica Valenti gets to the bottom line for The Nation: “It’s not just our lives and health that are in danger, but our human dignity.”
- Hospital Death in Ireland Renews Fight Over Abortion — Douglas Dalby at The New York Times writes of a state of Irish politics that will not be entirely unfamiliar to U.S. readers: “Given the divisiveness of the abortion issue in Ireland, which has prompted two bitterly fought referendums, successive governments have avoided passing any legislation.”
- Death in Ireland is a Wake Up Call to Fight Bans on Later Abortion Here at Home — Susan Yanow at RH Reality Check contemplates the U.S. implications and concludes: “We have a sobering lesson to learn from Ireland — when doctor’s medical judgement is compromised by restrictive abortion laws, it is women’s health and women’s lives that suffer.”
Several writers have referred to the “X case” in covering this story. This was a controversial 1992 Irish Supreme Court case in which a 14-year-old girl expressed suicidal thoughts after being raped by a neighbor and becoming pregnant as a result. The girl planned to have an abortion elsewhere, but was prevented from doing so. The court eventually ruled that women have the right to seek abortions in life-threatening situations, including possible suicide.
Despite this 20-year-old ruling, Irish legislators have not passed a law to codify this right, leaving women in dangerously uncertain territory.
Today, some twenty years after the X case we find ourselves asking the same question again — if a woman is pregnant, her life in jeopardy, can she even establish whether or not she has a right to a termination here in Ireland? There is still a disturbing lack of clarity around this issue, decades after the tragic events surrounding the X case in 1992.
Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore has said that the government would act “to bring legal clarity to this issue as quickly as possible.”
See also these additional commentaries on the failure to pass relevant laws after the X case to make abortions clearly legal in life-threatening situations.
Emer O’Toole writes at The Guardian about the struggles of pro-choice activists in Ireland, pointing to the culpability of doctors, legislators, journalists, and others in perpetuating the lack of justice in abortion laws. She issues an apology to Savita’s family that is also a call to action to supporters of abortion rights:
To her family, I want to say: I am ashamed, I am culpable, and I am sorry. For every letter to my local politician I didn’t write, for every protest I didn’t join, for keeping quiet about abortion rights in the company of conservative relations and friends, for becoming complacent, for thinking that Ireland was changing, for not working hard enough to secure that change, for failing to create a society in which your wife, your daughter, your sister was able to access the care that she needed: I am sorry. You must think that we are barbarians.