How Death of Woman Who Was Denied an Abortion Woke Up Ireland

An investigation by Ireland’s national health service determined that confusion over the country’s abortion law was a contributing factor in her death.


Flowers, notes and candles amassed Sunday at a mural in central Dublin, the portrait of a bright-eyed young Indian woman, a bindi on her forehead, smiling out from behind the word “YES.”

“Sorry we were too late, but we are here now,” read one message taped to the wall. “We didn’t forget you.”

The woman on the mural was Dr. Savita Halappanavar, and her story came to be synonymous with calls for repeal of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which effectively banned abortion in Ireland. Her story galvanized the campaigners calling for an end to the ban and was cited again and again when the country overwhelmingly voted Friday to repeal the amendment.

Halappanavar’s death in 2012 at age 31 from septicemia — an infection she contracted after she was denied an abortion during a miscarriage — set off outrage across the country and gave momentum to a growing call for change.

For many young Irish women, hers was the first tangible story of how the Eighth Amendment, which was introduced in 1983, could affect them, said Melissa Barnes, a 20-year-old medical student.

“When Savita died, that was kind of the point at which people my age, in that kind of young bracket, were made aware of what was going on,” Barnes said. “We weren’t even around when the Eighth Amendment was introduced.”

Stephanie O’Toole, another 20-year-old college student from Dublin, agreed.

“Her name was a catalyst for a crucial conversation,” O’Toole said. “She became a symbol of this fight for a generation of people.”

Halappanavar, a dentist, and her husband, an engineer, were living in Galway in 2012 and preparing for the birth of their first child. That all changed when, 17 weeks pregnant, Halappanavar went the hospital with back pain on Oct. 21 and doctors said she was having a miscarriage.

Halappanavar was told that her fetus would not survive — but that she could not be given an abortion, her husband said. Ireland, she was told, is “a Catholic country,” and it would be against the law to terminate the pregnancy while the fetus still had a heartbeat, her husband said.

After being repeatedly refused an abortion, she waited days until the heartbeat stopped. The contents of her womb were removed on Oct. 27. By then she had an infection, and she died of septicemia the following day.

An investigation by Ireland’s national health service determined that confusion over the country’s abortion law was a contributing factor in her death.

Opponents of abortion argued that Halappanavar’s “tragic death shouldn’t be used to advance a campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.” It was the infection, not the restrictive laws, that killed her, they said.

But Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, a professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology at St George’s University of London who led the investigation into the Halappanavar case, suggested otherwise in testimony to a government committee.

“One of the things which was holding their hands back while they were looking after her,” he said, according to The Irish Times, “was this Eighth Amendment issue because the baby’s heartbeat was there.”

Barnes, the medical student, said: “It was such tragedy of epic proportions that doctors were unable to provide basic care for her because red tape tied their hands. I think what it really did was, it woke up young people, particularly young women, to how easily something like that could happen.”

For others already active in the abortion rights campaign, Halappanavar’s death marked a visible turning point. Thousands rallied outside the Irish parliament in 2012 after news of her death, and marches and vigils followed. As the years went on, her name became a rallying cry.

Mark O’Halloran, an actor and a screenwriter, was at those initial protests in 2012.

“The call for change was already there, but I don’t think there was much momentum, I don’t think there was much political will,” O’Halloran said. “The people of Ireland were shocked by it, and it changed a lot of people’s minds.”

There had been other prominent cases after the Eighth Amendment was introduced, but never one that galvanized so many people across so many demographics, he said. In 1992, a 14-year-old rape victim was prevented from traveling to Britain for an abortion, in an episode that came to be known as the “X case.” Her name was never released to protect her identity.

Halappanavar’s husband and friends gave accounts of her life and of her final days in the hospital. The public also saw videos of her full off life. O’Halloran said he believed that a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility that Irish people feel for visitors and newcomers weighed heavily on the conscience of the nation.

“The fact that all of those old, ideological hang-ups contributed to her death, and the fact that she and her husband were told, ‘This is a Catholic country, we can’t help you’ — that really brought terrible shame on us,” O’Halloran said.

Halappanavar’s parents gave permission for her image to be used by the campaign to repeal the amendment.

“I hope that the people in Ireland will remember the fate of our daughter Savita on the day of the referendum and vote ‘yes’ so that what happened to us won’t happen to other families,” her father, Andanappa Yalagi, said in a video clip posted by the Together for Yes campaign before the vote.

Many voters did remember her.

When the landslide vote in favor of repealing the amendment was announced Saturday at Dublin Castle, Halappanavar’s name was on the lips of supporters. They chanted “Savita” and held posters of her image. Yalagi told The Irish Times on Saturday that his family was “really, really happy” to hear that the abortion ban had been lifted.

Ireland now plans to introduce legislation to allow for relatively unrestricted abortions up until 12 weeks of pregnancy, subject to consultation with a doctor and a short waiting period. Beyond 12 weeks of pregnancy, termination would still be possible — up to 24 weeks — if two doctors determined that a woman’s life was threatened by the pregnancy or that there was serious risk to her health.

The government said it hoped to pass the measure into law by the end of the year.

“We have one last request — that the new law, that it is called ‘Savita’s Law,’” Yalagi said. “It should be named for her.”

© 2018 New York Times News Service

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