The story of the struggle for abortion rights in Ireland is punctuated with the names of dead women—Sheila Hodgers, Anne Lovett, Michelle Harte and now Savita Halappanavar.
Sheila Hodgers was diagnosed with a spinal tumor. As she was pregnant she was refused treatment. On St Patrick’s Day 1983, Sheila gave birth to a premature baby. The baby died immediately and three days later Sheila died.
Anne Lovett was 15 and too terrified to tell anyone she was pregnant. Alone and with few options she gave birth in 1984 in a field in the middle of winter. She died, her baby died.
Michelle Harte was terminally ill with cancer when she became pregnant. She was refused an abortion because her life was not considered to be in “immediate” danger.
Michelle travelled to Britain in 2010 but the abortion was severely delayed as she could not afford to travel. She died eight months later. Doctors later concluded that the delay in having the abortion hastened her death.
And now Savita Halappanavar is dead. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant when she developed complications with her pregnancy. The foetus was not viable yet Savita was repeatedly denied medical treatment.
When she asked why she was told by her consultant that it was “against the law” and that Ireland “is a Catholic country”.
Abortion became illegal in Ireland under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Today, Ireland still has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Abortion is illegal in all circumstances except where there is a threat to the life of the pregnant woman.
Yet abortion is as much a fact of life as it is in Britain, the US or any European country where it is legal. In the last 30 years more than 147,000 Irish women have travelled abroad for access to safe abortion.
For the most part, women who have had abortions remain invisible. This helps maintain the myth of an abortion-free Ireland.
The few times when abortion is acknowledged the terms of the debate have been extraordinarily limited, using abstract ethical and philosophical terms.
All of this changed in 1992 with the X case. The X case involved a 14 year old rape victim prevented by the High Court from travelling to Britain for an abortion. It changed the debate by precisely clarifying the argument on which the whole debate about abortion rests.
Are the rights of the woman, her life, her hopes, her well-being paramount? Or should a foetus, still invisible to the naked eye, have rights that supersede those of the woman?
In February 1992 Irish people were forced to answer those questions and overwhelmingly they sided with the woman. Thousands of people took to streets. They forced the hand of the judiciary, making abortion legal in Ireland where a woman’s life was a risk.
Since then there has been a significant shift in people’s attitudes towards abortion. Today the vast majority of Irish people consider themselves to be pro-choice.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the X case. The government continues to turn a blind eye to abortion. Yet Savita’s death is proving to be another significant turning point as Irish people take to the streets to demand action.