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21 November 2012

Tragic death of Savita Halappanavar

Action needed to allow access to abortion in Ireland

Rita Harrold, Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) and pro-choice activist

On Sunday 28 October Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old woman from India, died in Galway University Hospital in Ireland. She had been admitted one week earlier with severe back pain. Savita was miscarrying and, with the neck of her womb open, doctors said there was no hope for the 17 week foetus. For three days Savita was in agony, she asked for a termination several times but this was denied due to the presence of a foetal heartbeat. Her husband Praveen says that they were told no, "this is a Catholic country."

When the foetal heartbeat did stop on 24 October, the foetus was removed. Unfortunately this was too late for Savita who had developed septicaemia. Her condition deteriorated rapidly and very tragically, she died.

A bill to improve access to abortion was put to the Dáil (Irish parliament) by the United Left Alliance and others earlier this year. But it was voted down by both government parties, including the Labour Party. Both the Prime Minister and Minister for Health have said that they will not be rushed to legislate in the wake of Savita's death.


On Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours after the news of Savita's tragic death broke, 2,000 people assembled at a rally at the Dáil in Dublin. Smaller scale vigils and protests spontaneously occurred in cities around the country.

The tone of that rally was one of deep sadness at the unnecessary loss of life and decades old resentment and anger at the politicians who, because of their cowardice, lack of conviction and backward, outdated views, have let women in Ireland suffer.

Only three days later 20,000 took to the wet streets of the capital on Saturday 17 November, bearing banners saying "Never Again!" A further 1,500 attended a vigil in Galway and many more attended other events across the country and in London. The mood on the Dublin march was phenomenal with the clear message being sent to the government that inaction would no longer be tolerated.

It is not clear that legislating for the X case (see below) would have been enough to avoid this situation as the X case ruling only considers a woman's life to be grounds for termination, as opposed to her health. Savita suffered in agony for days. During this time it may not have been clear that her life was in danger.

The Socialist Party has demanded in the Dáil through our TD (MP) Joe Higgins, and at demonstrations, through our councillor Ruth Coppinger, a directive to be sent to all hospitals which would ensure that all requests for termination where a woman's life or health are at risk be met.

We have also called for immediate legislation that goes beyond the X case that ensures that a woman's health as well as her life are paramount in the care received, including terminations in public hospitals if needed.

We have highlighted the need for a separation of church and state, an end to church control of schools and hospitals and for the right to choose abortion for women in Ireland - a service which should be provided freely through the public health service.

Approximately eleven women a day are travelling from the south of Ireland to British abortion clinics. The absolute hypocrisy of denying the reality of Irish abortion is politically contemptible. Those with children and family commitments, migrant women without the right to travel and the young are punished for seeking an abortion while the wealthy have more options.

Build a movement

The Socialist Party is fighting for real choice for women - for access to free, safe and legal abortion and for the building of an anti-austerity, anti-capitalist movement that puts a socialist Ireland and Europe on the agenda. Only such a movement can ensure that the rights of women and the working class, the young, the poor, and all oppressed sections of society will no longer continue to be jeopardised by capitalism.

Socialist Party MEP for Dublin, Paul Murphy, has called an international day of action for Wedneday 21 November and led 53 MEPs to sign a letter to condemn the situation that allowed Savita to die. See and for reports of the protests around the world, including in London.

Irish abortion law - the history

Ireland has notoriously strict abortion laws. The Offences Against the Persons Act from 1861 is still on the books, charging those "intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman... to be kept in penal servitude." In 1983 a clause was inserted into the constitution to balance the right to life of the "unborn child" with the equal right to life of the mother.

In 1991 student unions and their activists, including members of the Socialist Party, were banned from distributing information about obtaining abortions abroad. Various hotlines and information sharing services run by dedicated volunteers were constantly being shut down by police.

Case X

In 1992 the parents of a 14 year old rape victim contacted police about getting DNA evidence to help secure a conviction while she would obtain an abortion abroad. The attorney general got an injunction to prevent her from travelling abroad to access a termination.

There was an explosion of anger in society as people for the first time saw the real effect of restrictive abortion laws and thought that this could be their child, their friend. From school students to older workers, people took to the streets with the demand "Let her go!"

The wave of protests that followed forced the Supreme Court to rule that if there was a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the risk of suicide, as distinct from a risk to her health, a termination was lawful. This became known as the X case.

Two referenda followed to try to further restrict abortion law but both were defeated. In this way pressure from below and more open attitudes of ordinary people achieved the right to travel abroad to obtain an abortion and for information on foreign abortion services to be accessible in certain circumstances.

No legislation

In the 20 years that have followed, no legislation has been put in place to outline how the X case ruling should be applied by doctors. Since then the European court of human rights has made rulings against the state in cases where women's lives were at risk and abortions in Ireland were not available.

London protests: solidarity with struggle for abortion rights in Ireland

On Saturday 17 November, in solidarity with those protesting in Ireland, 70 people gathered on the steps of the Irish embassy in London. They held a minute's silence for Savita.

Speakers included a woman from a charity which helps women pay for flights to England and has seen a trebling of calls since it was launched.

Socialist Party member Helen Pattison was also on the platform. She spoke about how disgraceful the Irish Labour Party had been in voting against the bill for abortion rights in April of this year, and the hypocrisy of the main parties who call themselves 'pro-life' but are cutting vital services for children and families.

This followed a protest of 200 at the embassy three days earlier.

Women in Britain have access to abortion but this hard-won right must be extended and defended. Tory health minister Jeremy Hunt has expressed his desire to halve the legal time limit for abortions to 12 weeks. Notorious anti-choice activist and Tory MP Nadine Dorries has said she went on I'm a Celebrity in order to campaign to restrict the time limit. To give women real choice over when and whether to have children, the Socialist Party England and Wales calls for:

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