Today, Friday, it was confirmed that an hospital in Ireland performed the first legal abortion in the country. The abortion took place in a Dublin hospital on a woman whose 18-week pregnancy was non-viable and whose life was at risk. The woman, who is doing fine, had shown signs of sepsis. But she may owe her life to another woman who was killed by sepsis when an Irish hospital refused to terminate her non-viable pregnancy: Savita Halappanavar. Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, repeatedly asked doctors in a Galway hospital to terminate her 17-week fetus. Though she was literally in the process of miscarrying the fetus, the hospital refused to take any actions as long as there was a fetal heartbeat, with one nurse reminding the patient that Ireland is “a Catholic country.” (Because What Would Jesus Do? Definitely not save the life of a woman whose fetus had no chance of survival.) Halappanavar died a few days later. The tragedy justifiably sparked international protest against Ireland’s draconian abortion policies. In response, the country passed a law in July allowing for abortions in cases when a woman’s life is at risk due to medical complications or because she is suicidal. It is because of this law that the recent termination was able to be performed.
Yet abortion in Ireland remains unforgivably restricted. The country prohibits any and all abortions that are not performed to save a woman’s life. Effectively, abortion remains illegal with this one exception. The law does not include exceptions in cases of rape or incest. Nor does it allow for abortions in the case of birth defects. Abortion is still criminalized and a woman seeking or getting one can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison. Mara Clarke, the director of the London-based Abortion Support Network, which raises money to help women in Ireland afford the $600-$3,000 required to travel to England and pay privately for an abortion in England, said, “only a very, very small percentage of women who need abortions will be able to access them in Ireland.” For the rest of Ireland’s women, the lucky ones will travel to England for an abortion while those without the resources to do so will be forced to go on with pregnancies they should have the right to terminate.
Just as I am not whitewashing the reality of abortion in Ireland, I am not romanticizing the death of Savita Halappanavar. The fact that a limited number of women have access to a procedure that all women should be able to undergo neither justified Halappanavar’s death nor absolves the people responsible for killing her. But the fact remains that Halappanavar’s death and the organizing that followed it, have saved the life of one woman and will save the lives of more women. Halappanavar’s father, Andanappa Yalagifather, said it best when, a month after his daughter died, he urged the Prime Minister to change Ireland’s abortion laws: ”Sir, please change your law and take consideration of humanity. Please change the law on abortion, which will help to save the lives of so many women in the future.” One small but significant battle has been one. But the greater war– one against against misogyny and theocracy, and for reproductive freedom– is far from over.