Savita Halappanavar Indian in Ireland abortion
The Irish Times

The smile that changed Ireland

By Sarah Monday, September 2, 2019 - 14:45
Her death shook Ireland. Women were angry. It could have been any of us, they said. Savita would not have died if she was allowed an abortion, they said. Love Matters brings you the story of an Indian woman, whose death led Ireland to free its women of a law that didn’t let them choose.

The red dot in Dublin

As you walk down the streets of Dublin, the capital of Ireland, you notice a huge wall poster. An Indian woman –  long black hair, big eyes – full of life, a bindi on her forehead, she is smiling out from behind the word ‘YES’. 

Hundreds of people leave flowers, notes and cards around her. 

‘Sorry we were too late, but we are here now,’ reads one note posted on the wall. ‘We didn’t forget you’, reads another. 

Savita's mural in Ireland
Creative Commons/Zcbeaton

Young and expecting

The woman in the mural –  Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist, lived in Ireland with husband Praveen. In the summer of 2012, Savita and Praveen were expecting their first baby. 

The couple was elated and looking forward to welcoming a new member in their family. 

A wait for death

When Savita was seventeen weeks pregnant, she went to the hospital with back pain. The doctors didn’t say much at first. Savita was discharged. However, later that same day, she returned to the hospital saying she felt something was coming down her vagina. Savita was having a miscarriage. The baby they were told wouldn’t survive. 

Savita and Praveen pleaded with the doctors for an abortion to terminate the pregnancy. Despite the complication, the dcotors refused an abortion. Savita and Praveen were told an abortion is not allowed ‘under Irish law’ unless there was evidence that Savita’s life was at risk. They explained that they could not perform an abortion because the foetus still had a heartbeat. 

Savita was asked to wait in the hospital for days until the foetal heartbeat stopped on its own. Wait, not to deliver a baby but for the foetal heart to stop. An abortion could have avoided the agony. But the law prolonged it. 

The delay proved fatal. Savita developed an infection. And a week after she first reported to the hospital, Savita died, at the middle of the night on 28 October 2012, of a cardiac arrest caused by the infection. 

The grief and the anger

Her death shook Ireland. Women were angry. They could feel Savita’s pain and relate to her. They demanded the government lift the ban. Savita would not have died if she was allowed to terminate her pregnancy, they said. 

Protestors – a majority of them women –  took to the streets for candle light vigils. The crowds showed their remorse and anger. Young women in particular realised just how easily something similar could happen to them! 

Savita’s death caused unprecedented grief in Ireland and got the country to think hard about its laws. Appeals were made against the law that threatened women’s life and choices. 

Protests in Ireland
Creative Commons/William Murphy

A life not wasted

Fast forward to 2018. A bill was introduced in the Irish parliament to lift the ban on abortion. Six years after Savita’s death, in May 2018, Ireland voted in favour of abortion (under specific circumstances). 

Celebrations broke out in the streets. People thanked and remembered Savita. Supporters held posters with Savita’s photo and chanted her name. 

‘I wish you never had to give your life for this’ read one of the messages. 

Savita’s pictures were all over Ireland – on flyers, murals, billboards, placards and social media. 

Irish artist Aches painted a huge mural with Savita’s smiling face on a Dublin street. (see pic above

Messages on Savita's mural
Twitter/Laura Silver

Rest in peace

At her home in India’s Belgaum, Savita's parents told the BBC, ‘It was a battle of six years and the battle is won. Her soul will rest in peace now’. 

Before 2018, Irish women, who wanted to get an abortion were forced to go abroad or buy pills illegally on the internet. And they ran the risk of going to jail for doing so.

Because of Savita, women in Ireland are now legally able to have an abortion until 12 weeks of pregnancy (without having to give any reasons). And if a woman’s life or health is considered to be at risk, termination of a pregnancy is now possible until 24 weeks.

A movement of freedom, for an Indian woman, whose smile now lives in Ireland. 

Love Matters supports women’s right to choose and make decisions about their bodies. Read more about abortion and contraceptive choices on Love Matters. The introduction of the story has been dramatised. The key points in the story are true and factual.

If you have any questions on abortion, please ask Love Matters (LM) experts on our discussion forum. Don't forget to check out our Facebook  page.  

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