Ireland’s first legal abortion means Savita Halappanavar did not die in vain

4372996-3x2-940x627Today, 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.

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Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/violett/ violett

    you must change the article, it wasnt an abortion!, pls dont misinform

  • http://feministing.com/members/maraclarke/ Mara

    As I am quoted (albiet from another, uncredited source) in this piece, can I ask that you change the title of this piece? This was not the first legal abortion in Ireland. Abortion has always been legal in Ireland to save a woman’s life and this was not the first abortion performed legally in Ireland! It was just the first performed (that we know of) since the new legislation (which supposedly clarifies what constitutes a risk to a woman’s life). And as our phone has gotten busier if nothing else, and as this law, as you say, only helps the women who will literally die, I can’t really get all that worked up about it, especially since the day the bill was signed we had calls from a couple whose wanted pregnancy had fatal foetal anomalies and they couldn’t raise the £1800 to travel and pay privately and a mother of four who was thinking of crashing her car to induce a miscarriage.