Two weeks ago, a woman in Ireland who was 17-weeks pregnant died after doctors refused her an abortion. Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, died of septicemia in the University Hospital Galway after suffering an excruciating and drawn-out miscarriage. The doctors that treated her told her that her baby was unviable – that it wasn't going to survive outside the womb – but that they couldn't terminate the pregnancy because the foetus still had a detectable heart beat. If she'd been granted the abortion she repeatedly asked for – "in agony", from her hospital bed – she would have survived.
According to Savita's husband, when the couple realised they couldn't save the baby and asked to induce to end the pregnancy, the consultant replied, "As long as there's a foetal heartbeat, we can’t do anything.” The consultant said it was the law and that Ireland is a Catholic country, meaning that Savita – a Hindu – died because a man in Italy doesn't support the abortion of foetuses, regardless of what effect that has on the mother or the child.
The next evening, Savita started shaking, shivering and vomiting. She went to the toilet and collapsed. When the foetus' heart finally stopped beating, Savita was taken to theatre to have the contents of her womb removed. "When she came out, she was talking OK, but was very sick. That was the last time I spoke to her," said Mr Halappanavar.
Rachel Donnelly, a spokeswoman for pro-choice campaigners in Galway said, "This was an obstetric emergency that should have been dealt with in a routine manner. Yet Irish doctors are restrained from making obvious medical decisions by a fear of potentially severe consequences. As the European court ruled – as long as the 1861 Act remains in place, alongside a complete political unwillingness to touch the issue, pregnant women will continue to be unsafe in this country."
Savita's case has been one of the most horrific casualties caused by the ongoing abortion debate in Ireland. When Belfast opened its first abortion clinic last month (I know; insane), people lost their shit. In Ireland, the law states that an embryo – even at the point of tiny-squiggly-sperm-meets-egg – is a respected Irish citizen, enjoying the full rights of every man, woman and child living in the Republic. And that the scribble living inside of a woman’s womb should be given the same privileges as the woman who made it, just a few days earlier, even if it means risking her life.
It's illegal in Ireland to have an abortion in the case of lethal foetal abnormality, as well as in the case of incest. But most staggeringly screwy of all is that it's illegal to have an abortion in the case of rape. At least 12 women in Ireland are forced to travel abroad for an abortion every day, often in secrecy, as a result, and the personal, financial and emotional cost of these outdated laws is indeterminably huge.
At 6PM last night, about 200 pro-choice campaigners staged an abortion rights protest outside the Irish Embassy in London for Savita and in solidarity with the 2,000-strong protest outside the Dáil in Dublin. Perhaps for the first time ever, the "pro-lifers" were noticeably absent. Last night, no one was singing hymns or screaming "murderer" from the sidelines. They must have realised how ridiculous that would have looked and stayed away. Which is kind of a big step, even for them.
Pranav and Samantha, both from London.
VICE: Is this the first abortion rights protest you’ve been to?
Samantha: No, we’ve both been to a few.
Why did you feel compelled to come down here tonight?
Pranav: It’s a disgrace, isn’t it? The whole thing’s a disgrace. There’s no other way to describe it. This is systematic murder.
Samantha: I just don’t understand how they get away with calling themselves "pro-life" when women are dying.
Pranav: I don’t understand – I thought doctors were supposed to do no harm, no matter what. This was a medical need.
Hazel, Irish-born and living in London.
Why are you here this evening?
Hazel: As an Irish woman who's emigrated from Ireland to the UK, it’s really important to be here and I’m delighted that so many people actually turned up. Pro-life groups are extremely hypocritical when they talk about limiting women’s rights, then cut things like grants to single parents and make it harder for that young life when it does actually enter the world. When women decide to terminate pregnancies, it’s because they're making a choice that’s best for the child. If you can’t afford to bring a child up – or whatever your reason is – it shouldn’t be the state’s role to decide for you: it should be your own choice.
What do you want specifically from the Irish government?
We’re not even talking about the right for abortion in this case, we’re talking about legislation for the X Case in Ireland, which has been passed by the Irish supreme court. The X Case says that if the woman’s life is in danger, she should be able to have an abortion. The European Court of Human Rights called it a "violation of women’s rights" for the government’s failure to legislate for the X Case, and they still haven’t done it.
Now you have women in Ireland actually dying because of the government's failure to implement the X Case, despite the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Court in Ireland and two referendums of the Irish people demanding they do so. As a woman living in the UK, I’m entitled to free contraception, I’m entitled to the right to choose and I’m supported so much more than if I was back home as an Irish woman, and I think that’s a disgrace.
Amelia Benson, director of Feminist London, who organised last night’s protest.
Hi Amelia. How do you think the protest went tonight?
Amelia: It’s awful that it takes a tragedy to bring us together like this, but it's been really great. Pro-choice protests are usually maybe 10 of you gathered together because you want to support the cause but you don’t really know how. But the fact that this number of people came out really shows that there’s a huge underground pro-choice movement and people are now saying enough is enough.
A more open and active pro-choice movement can grow out of the tragedy that’s occurred and I think that’s really positive. It’s not fair at the moment. If you’re born in Northern Ireland, you can’t have an abortion. If you’re born in Scotland, you’re fine. Why is that fair? My family is from Ireland and it’s terrifying to think that if I was born in Ireland and wanted to have an abortion, I'd have nowhere to go. And, unfortunately, we saw the consequences of that problem realised last week.
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