Abortion ban: How Savita Halappanavar's death revealed the dark side of restrictive abortion laws in Ireland

With several states across the US passing some of the most repressive abortion laws, Savita Halappanavar's case from Ireland reminds us of the deadly consequences of such restrictive legislation


                            Abortion ban: How Savita Halappanavar's death revealed the dark side of restrictive abortion laws in Ireland

Several states across the United States have over the last few months passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws seen in decades.

This has led to the widening of the gap between liberal and conservative states and has set the stage for massive court battles. 

In April, Indiana decided to enforce a near total ban on the most common second-trimester abortion. A few days later, Ohio followed suit and passed a bill which banned abortion in the early weeks of pregnancy after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Earlier this week, Governor Kay Ivey from Alabama decided to sign a bill which banned abortion totally. 

Other restrictive bans have been passed in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Dakota among other states, though most have been challenged in the court.

When it comes to restrictive abortion bans, Savita Halappanavar's case from Ireland serves an example of the dark side of such repressive laws. 

Who was Savita Halappanavar?

Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old dentist originally from India whose death sparked outrage and resulted in Irish abortion laws being reformed.

Halappanavar passed away in 2012 due to septicaemia: an infection which she contracted after being denied an abortion. She died after being refused abortion at the University Hospital Galway. The cause of death was recorded as severe sepsis, E.coli in the bloodstream and a miscarriage at 17 weeks.

Savita Halappanavar died as a result of repressive abortion laws and her case served as a catalyst for change in Ireland (Source: Getty Images)

She was told that Ireland is a "Catholic country" and it would be illegal to abort the pregnancy while the fetus still had a heartbeat, according to her husband. She was repeatedly refused an abortion and had to wait days till the fetus' heartbeat had stopped. By this time, she had contracted an infection and died of the infection the very next day. 

Abortions in Ireland

In Ireland, abortion had been illegal as the 1983 Eighth Amendment of the Constitution equated the right to life of the unborn child and right to life of the mother.

The 2012 death of Halappanavar, however, fuelled a massive campaign for the law to be changed. After her death, several protests and candle-light vigils were held across the nation. 

As reported by The Journal, medical expert Sir Arulkumaran, who was the author of the HSE (Health Service Executive) report into Halappanavar's death, said, "It was very clear to me during the inquiry that the thing preventing the physician from proceeding was the legal issue because she repeatedly said she was concerned about the legal issue. I will give a little bit of explanation." 

"They were just keeping her going because of the mere fact the heartbeat was there. The legislation played a major role in making a decision. Somebody else might say they would have done the termination much earlier. That is a personal interpretation. It is why things are made difficult because of the legislation. I agree that if the legislation had been different, Savita’s case would not have happened," he added. 

Changing the law 

As a result of the campaign, around 66% voted to scrap the amendment in a referendum while just one rural county — Donegal — voted otherwise.

Ireland's prime minister Leo Varadkar, who decided to pledge a referendum on abortion upon coming to power, said, "The people have spoken. We trust women and we respect women to make their own decisions and their own choice."

Ireland Voted In Favour of Law Reform In Abortion Referendum (Source: Getty Images)

As a result, abortion in Ireland is regulated by the Health Act 2018 and is permitted during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Abortions are also permitted to take place later in the pregnancy in cases where the mother's life or health is at risk.