Protesters took to the streets of Dublin this weekend to demand reform of Ireland’s abortion law, on the tenth anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who was denied an abortion while she was having a miscarriage. The young woman has become a symbol of abortion reform in Ireland.
“Abortion is a human right”, could be read on the placards of the march commemorating the tenth anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar. Hundreds of people took to the streets of Dublin on Saturday, October 29, to honor the memory of this 31-year-old young woman, who died in 2012 in a hospital in Galway, after being refused an abortion.
Her death is one of the reasons that pushed the government to organize a historic referendum repealing the constitutional ban on abortion in 2018. But four years later, it remains very difficult for Irish women to use this right: only 10 out of 19 maternities in the country offer abortion and less than one out of nine GPs, according to figures provided by Freedom of Information (FOI).
Faced with this situation, activists are calling for the abolition of the 12-week pregnancy limit and an end to the three-day waiting period before a woman can have an abortion, the newspaper reports. Irish Times. They also ask to create a permanent memorial in honor of Savita Halappanavar.
“You are in a Catholic country”
Ten years ago, on October 28, 2012, Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis after refusing an abortion in a hospital in Galway, Ireland, when she had a miscarriage. The Indian dentist is pregnant with her first child. During the fourth month, severe pain led her to the hospital. The doctors confirm that she is having a miscarriage.
For a week, with her husband, she begs the doctors to perform an abortion. But they refuse, on the grounds that the heart of the fetus is still beating. “You are in a Catholic country,” said the doctors, according to comments reported by Savita’s husband.
Her death reignited the abortion rights movement in the Republic of Ireland and led to the Health Act 2018 (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) allowing medically supervised termination of pregnancy, up to 12 weeks and later if the pregnancy poses a serious health risk to the mother or if there is a fatal fetal abnormality.
In 2012, on the death of Savita Halappanavar, Irish commentators draw a parallel with another case dating from 1992, called the “X case”, in which a 14-year-old girl became pregnant after being raped by a relative of family. Named “X” in the police reports and in the media to protect her identity, the teenager explains to her mother that she wants to commit suicide because of her unwanted pregnancy.
Her parents want to take her to the UK, in secret, for an abortion. Before leaving, the family asks the Irish police if a DNA sample from the fetus could lead to the conviction of their attacker. Then informed, the authorities prevent him from going abroad and the case goes to the Supreme Court of Dublin, which ends up authorizing his exit from the territory.
According to Nathalie Sebbane, lecturer in Irish civilization at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University, and specialist in women’s rights in Ireland, the number of abortions abroad increased considerably after the X affair. “Thousands of women have made the choice to have an abortion abroad as they no longer risked being judged”, she specifies.
“Others continued to do so in Ireland, but in appalling conditions. The moral order that the Church imposed on the population in the 1990s was still very strong.”
The influence of the Church
The criminalization of abortion in Ireland dates back to a British law of 1861, the Offenses Against the Person Act. It makes liable to a prison sentence of 14 years anyone who undergoes or helps a woman to perform a termination of pregnancy.
Then, in 1983, Ireland introduced into its constitution the eighth amendment according to which “the State recognizes the right to life of the fetus and, while having due regard to the equal right of the mother to life, undertakes to to respect this right in its legislation and, as far as possible, to defend and assert it by its laws.”
“In the 1980s, there was a strong comeback of Catholic power”, relates Nathalie Sebbane. “Irish pro-life groups are very present. They go so far as to have priests intervene in churches on Sundays with a speech that says that abortion is a crime.”
In the 1990s, Ireland saw an economic boom, it was nicknamed the “Celtic Tiger”. But with the crisis of 2008, it saw its growth collapse, before regaining color, under the infusion of Europe and the IMF. “In 2012, we are in a completely different Irish society,” she explains. “The media are beginning to expand their sphere of influence and the Church is losing influence with the sex scandals.”
Today, the question of collusion between the Church and the State “no longer exists”, affirms Nathalie Sebbane. “No one wants to believe in the Catholic Church anymore. But that does not mean that all Irish people have lost their faith.”
The right to abortion in Europe
In Europe, the total ban on abortion remains an exception: in Andorra, the Vatican and Malta where abortion can result in a prison sentence of 18 months to 3 years. In other countries, the right to abortion has marked a setback, like Poland and Hungary, which have tightened their rules.
In Italy, with the victory of Giorgia Meloni, many Italians fear the possible end of the right to abortion. The Italian Prime Minister has promoted throughout her campaign a deeply pro-natalist policy and, therefore, is not in favor of abortion.
“Young women are no longer in the camp of shame”
As in Europe, the future of the right to abortion remains fragile in Ireland. For Nathalie Sebbane, it is thanks to the movements of activists and feminist militants that the debate is on the front of the stage. “What made things happen was the street, not politics,” she insists. “The political world remained very conservative whatever the party. The political groups remain frozen and have great difficulty in getting things moving.”
Our thoughts are with Savita Halappanavar’s family and friends today, the ten year anniversary of her senseless death as a result of Ireland’s 8th Amendment. pic.twitter.com/JgCKzcTG4X
— Abortion Rights IE (@freesafelegal) October 28, 2022
“Young women are no longer in the camp of shame, they are no longer invisible. They have invested the public space whereas, for decades, they were reduced to the private space. Since they spoke, they have never been silent again.”