Ireland Abortion Referendum: How Indian Dentist Savita Halappanavar’s Death May Make the Catholic Country Repeal its Anti-Abortion Laws
The referendum may settle abortion debate has polarised Ireland for ages. (Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons/ Flickr, William Murphy)

In 2012, a dentist of Indian origin, 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, was admitted at University hospital in Galway, Ireland after she complained of back pain. The doctors found out that she was miscarrying the foetus. According to her husband, Savita requested the hospital for abortion since the pain was turning severe with every passing moment. But her pleas were turned down by the hospital since the foetus was technically still alive and its heartbeats could be registered.

At a certain point, the husband and wife were reminded: “This is a Catholic country.” And this means, abortion is never an option, even when it is at the cost of two lives. Savita didn’t survive the miscarriage and ironically, the foetus, which the hospital fought so hard to save by denying abortion to the mother, didn’t either. The hospital attempted an abortion only after the foetus died a natural death inside the womb. But it was too late for Savita who had already contracted septicaemia.

The incident proved to be a blot on the collective consciousness of Irishmen, many of whom had questioned their nation’s anti-abortion laws. The tragedy fomented strong sentiments against article 40.3.3 or the Eighth Amendment in Irish constitution which reads: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” The near-blanket ban on abortion, even in cases of rape, incest and foetal abnormality, leaves Irish women with no choice but travel abroad to terminate their pregnancies. Today, on Friday 25th May 2018, Ireland will vote to either uphold or repeal the law.

Why is Ireland against Abortion?

The Catholic Church holds that "human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life." Ireland upholds the Eighth Amendment, which is in keeping with its Catholic faith.

Abortion was illegal in Ireland under the Offenses against the Person Act of 1861. But in the 1980s, pro-life activists, fearing that the act was not enough, successfully fought to get the act added into the constitution. A whopping 66.9 percent of Irishmen in 1983 voted in support of the law, which gave the mother and the unborn child equal rights. Even ordering abortion pills online  is illegal in Ireland. Shipment of pills is routinely seized by the customs.

Exceptions to the Law

Anyone guilty of undergoing an abortion in Ireland can face up to 14 years in prison. But despite the country’s hardline stance against abortion, it does allow termination of the pregnancy if it proves to risk the life of the mother. The exception was brought out in the light of Savita’s death in 2012. Strangely, the country also allows abortion as long as it is not carried out in Ireland. Case X, involving an anonymous 14-year-old girl who became pregnant due to rape and was suicidal, also gave women the right to travel to another country for an abortion. On an average, at least ten women go to the UK to terminate their pregnancies every day.

Why is The Referendum Being Held?

Ireland’s stance on abortion has won it international disgrace, especially after the 2012 tragedy. Pressure has been mounting on the nation from inside and the outside to repeal the archaic law since 2010 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the country was violating the European Convention on Human Rights. The Irish abortion laws lack clarity about the circumstances under which women could undergo the procedure legally.

The pro-choice groups in the country have relentlessly rallied against the Eighth Amendment. Even the United Nations have spoken out against Ireland’s abortion laws, which terms them as cruel to women. Protesters picketed outside Irish embassies in cities like London, Berlin and Brussels after Savita’s death. The Indian Minister for External Affairs, Salman Khurshid, summoned the Indian Ambassador to Ireland Debashish Chakravarti for deliberate over the issue. Even Amnesty International has voiced their thoughts, calling the Indian dentist’s death as an illustration of gaps in the Irish Law.

How Will People Vote?

The polarising topic has been debated vociferously on public forums in Ireland. Irish expats who have been out of the country for less than 18 months are returning home to cast their valuable vote on the topic that has divided the country for years. Poll booths open at 7 am local time (GMT) and will be open till 22:00. More than 3.2 million people are registered to vote in the referendum. The ballot paper meant for the voting will not mention the Eighth Amendment on abortion. Instead, the question: "Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill?” The voters will cross against the boxes meant for ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’

What are Possible Outcomes Expected?

Unlike before, Ireland is slowly breaking free from the stronghold of Catholicism with more and more people voicing their opinion against the draconian abortion law. Ireland also became the first country in the world to allow same-sex marriages after a similar referendum, which reflects the country’s changing attitudes and lack of faith in the Catholic church.

Online polls suggest that the ‘Yes’ brigade will be leading the vote. However, pro-life voices have also been rising in the country. Ironically, a Protestant body, The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland is backing a ‘No’ vote referendum citing the Biblical stance: Children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Psalm 127:3.

If there are more ‘Yes’ votes than ‘No’, the present article in the constitution 40.3.3 will be changed with the phrase: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.” The drafted legislation would allow abortions up to 12 weeks without justification if there is a risk to a woman’s life. More number of ‘No’ votes will mean that the law stays intact.

Savita’s parents from India has urged voters to push for pro-abortion laws lest the women of Ireland meet the same fate as their daughter’s. “I hope the people of Ireland remember my daughter Savita on the day of the referendum, and that what happened to her won’t happen to any other family,” Andanappa Yalagi told the Guardian.