Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, rushed to Galway University Hospital in October 2012 as she began to miscarry at 17 weeks. She begged the staff to save her pregnancy, but doctors told her there was no hope.
Halappanavar did lose her pregnancy. And she lost her own life, too.
A strict abortion ban in Ireland meant her doctors could not use abortion medication to speed up the miscarriage process. Her consultant told her that this was illegal in Ireland if a fetal heartbeat could be detected and her life was not at risk.
They knew they could not save the pregnancy, but because they could still detect a fetal heartbeat, they couldn’t end it either. Halappanavar would have to wait out the miscarriage.
Her doctor predicted that this would take a few hours, but three days passed before her pregnancy ended. She went into septic shock, and her organs began to fail. A week after entering the hospital, she died in intensive care. She was 31.
A health service inquiry and a later inquest found that there were several factors in Savita’s death, including mismanagement of sepsis; both analyses indicated that if she had had an abortion when she requested one, she might not have died. The doctor who led the inquiry said that Ireland’s abortion law was a major factor in her death, adding that medics “were waiting for that time for things to escalate” to the point that her life, not just her health, was at risk.
Irish families rarely went public with how abortion bans affected them. But her husband, Praveen, wasn’t born in Ireland. He was not constrained by the moral shame associated with abortion. And he spoke out.
I was at home watching the late-night news show “Tonight with Vincent Browne” when the news broke. Browne is a fierce, confrontational, wildly entertaining journalist and presence, and his show was unmissable. As usual, it ended just before midnight with a preview of tomorrow’s newspapers. On the front page of the Irish Times — a newspaper I have contributed to for over 15 years — was the headline on a story by my colleague Kitty Holland: “Woman ‘denied a termination’ dies in hospital”
Despite the late hour, my phone started hopping. By morning, it was clear that Savita’s death had caused widespread revulsion, anger, sadness and fear. We gathered at the Dáil, Ireland’s parliament, for a vigil in her memory. The crowd, stretching all the way down the street, lit candles and cried silent tears.
I spoke to activist friends and acquaintances, men and women, that I could bank on seeing there. But I also met friends who had previously sat on the fence or, after decades of Catholic education, had considered themselves anti-abortion.
They were there that evening because, they whispered, if it could happen to Savita, it could happen to any woman. She wanted her pregnancy but, facing a medical emergency, couldn’t travel to save her life.
With the backing of her family, Savita’s name became synonymous with the campaign to end Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion.
Her case forced Ireland, particularly well-off Irish, to confront its complacency. Since a landmark case 20 years before gave women and girls the right to travel to have an abortion, the prevailing attitude was: Well, there’s always England. For many years, Irish women and girls flew or took the boat to the U.K. to access abortion services. (Indeed, the anti-abortion campaign, LoveBoth, was quickly nicknamed “Love Boats” by pro-choice campaigners.)
Savita’s death showed that in a crisis, planes and boats are likely not an option. Women who once thought of themselves as outside the reach of the law realized they weren’t. If it could happen to Savita, it could happen to them.
As the United States prepares for the likely end to Roe v. Wade, I see the familiar stories I read when an Irish judge codified the rights of a pregnant woman to travel. Some states will allow abortion, others won’t. People think the solution is travel — and it may well be, for some who have the means. But in Ireland, many didn’t have that option. People with less money or resources — including friends of mine in college; asylum-seekers and other immigrants; pregnant children in care; and those, like Savita, who experienced a medical emergency — found themselves unable to leave Ireland. Pregnant people across America face the same fate. Abortion bans can affect anyone.
“People think certain things — cancer, a crisis pregnancy — will never happen to them,” author and activist Erin Darcy told Grid. “Or it will be different. That is how women in Ireland felt, until they started to hear all these stories and realized that, yes, it could be them.”
About 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and complications can occur in any pregnancy. But because Ireland never excelled in educating us about our own bodies, people didn’t know how easily these complications could happen to them or their loved ones. Watching the debate in the United States, it seems there’s a similar misunderstanding. I want Americans to realize what is hurtling down the tracks at them, what already barreled through Ireland when we banned abortion.
Gráinne Gilmore, a leading Irish barrister and a member of Lawyers for Yes, fears the legal consequences of reversing Roe v. Wade for Americans.
“Once you vest a right to life in the unborn, it trumps other rights, including the right to travel and the right to health.”
Savita’s story inspired many more women and their families to describe how the abortion ban had affected them, firing up a movement for a nationwide referendum to get forced birth out of Ireland’s constitution.
In the wake of Savita’s death, Darcy set up a Facebook page called In Her Shoes where women in Ireland could anonymously share their abortion stories.
In Her Shoes — which was later turned into a book — tapped into an existing Irish tradition of storytelling. When the pro-choice campaigners knocked on doors during the referendum, we gave Darcy’s booklet to people who were wavering or had concerns about abortion.
With a bit of an awkward grimace, many people said that they hadn’t really thought about it. They didn’t think it would affect them, but they were now seeing how any woman could be Savita.
“In Ireland, we had to wait until a woman was sick, but not sick enough to die,” Dr. Rhona Mahony, an obstetrician who served as the first female master (in effect, CEO) of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital between 2012 and 2018, told Grid. “But [pregnant] women can go downhill suddenly. If there is a ruptured membrane up to 18 weeks, for instance, there is little prospect for the fetus but a huge risk of sepsis or sickness for the mother.”
The stories included women who already had children and couldn’t afford to raise another, victims of rape and incest, and young people who weren’t ready to be parents.
“I had a miscarriage at 13 weeks,” said Darcy, who is American by birth but has lived in Ireland for 15 years. “Abortion was illegal. Like Savita, I had signs of sepsis. I was afraid they would stop everything to check for a heartbeat. You knew that everything would be put on pause. I had two children at home. I was terrified.”
Six parents who received a diagnosis of a fatal or severe fetal anomaly during pregnancy founded a support and campaign group, Terminations for Medical Reasons.
Women from all different backgrounds who had been able to travel told how they could not bring back the remains of their baby for burial in Ireland, or how they could travel but felt forced abroad and away from the support of their families and friends.
Campaigners reminded people of PP v. HSE, a case in 2014 — which Mahony told Grid was “macabre” — when Irish health authorities kept a brain-dead woman artificially alive against her family’s will because the fetus had a heartbeat.
“The equal right to life”
Irish and American abortion laws have long been interlinked. In 1973, when a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling found in Roe v. Wade that abortion was a constitutional right on privacy grounds, Ireland’s Supreme Court also heard a landmark privacy case brought by 27-year-old Mary McGee.
McGee’s doctor had been clear: She had a history of preeclampsia in each of her four pregnancies, and having any more children could kill her.
But contraception (along with abortion) was illegal in Ireland. McGee and her husband, James, tried ordering spermicidal jelly from England, but it was seized by Irish customs.
McGee argued that she had a constitutional right to privacy in her marriage and, therefore, the right to use contraception. On Dec. 19, 1973, she won.
McGee’s argument was similar to that made by Norma McCorvey — known by the pseudonym Jane Roe — that her right to privacy extended to the right to abortion. Like McGee, McCorvey was married and already had children. Two justices on the Irish court even cited Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark 1965 U.S. privacy case that paved the way for the Roe v. Wade verdict, in their ruling.
Irish conservatives were alarmed. If the Irish courts had found a right to privacy allowed contraception, what was to stop them, like the U.S. courts, finding that the right to privacy also allowed for abortion?
They pushed for a constitutional referendum to secure the right to life of the unborn.
In 1983, the Irish people voted by a landslide 2-1 margin for the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution:
“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.”
Mahony said it was an unworkable law.
“The Eighth Amendment tried to define the balance between the life of the mother and the life of the unborn,” she said. “It pitted mother against fetus. But medicine is not a question of rights; it is a question of risk. In real life, you balance the risks for mother and fetus.”
Almost 40 years later, the Eighth Amendment is gone. We had seen what abortion bans do, so, in 2018, a nationwide referendum to repeal it was passed by a landslide 2-1 margin. Even pro-choice campaigners were stunned: It was the exact opposite of the 1983 result. It was the first time that my generation had been given a choice on abortion.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.