By Ann Rossiter, On the Issues Special Correspondent in Dublin, Ireland.
A 17-weeks pregnant woman with severe back pain is admitted to a hospital in the west of Ireland. After an examination, she is told that her cervix is fully dilated; her amniotic fluid leaking. Her immature fetus will not survive. This is made clear to her. She is also told that once she miscarries her ordeal will be over and she can return home. But this never happens. A spontaneous abortion does not occur in the four or five hours predicted by the consultant gynecologist. The woman and her husband are informed that because the fetal heartbeat is still present, no intervention is possible. In spite of her repeated requests for an abortion, the woman is refused. Her husband says they were told that abortion “is against the law.” He says they were told, “this is a Catholic country.”
Three days later the fetal heartbeat does stops and the woman is taken to an operating room for an evacuation of the contents of her womb. Due to her high temperature and low heart and pulse rate she is transferred to the intensive care unit. She is placed on antibiotics but deteriorates rapidly and goes into multi-organ failure.
Seven days after admission to hospital, surrounded by modern equipment and well-trained staff, she dies of septicaemia. The woman is just one of an indeterminate number of women left to die when abortions could have saved their lives. The woman’s death notice on the website RIP.ie merely gives her name and states: ‘suddenly at University Hospital Galway’.
As many throughout the world know by now, the woman in question was Savita Halappanavar. She was 31, a practicing dentist from the state of Karnataka in south-west India who lived in Galway City with her husband Praveen, a chemical engineer at Boston Scientific, a large multi-national manufacturer of medical devices. This was to be their first child.
Since Savita’s death, Praveen’s unwavering commitment to seeking justice for his wife by exposing the horrific narrative of her treatment has resulted in the case going international and viral. In Ireland the media’s perception of Savita as a young, ‘exotic’, middle-class Indian health professional also contributed to wall-to-wall coverage almost to the exclusion of all else, even the desperate state of the economy. Reeling from shock and ridden with existentialist angst, everybody, everywhere on the entire island seemed to talk of nothing else.
People poured onto the streets to join vigils, rallies and demonstrations. There was palpable anger – rage even – but it was controlled since the protestors were also grieving. In Galway, the city that had become home to Savita, she was remembered with dignity and grace in candlelight vigils. Participants carrying her portrait bearing the captions: “Never again” and “She had a heartbeat too.” At the largest protest, in Dublin, at least 10,000 people (some counts put it closer to 20,000) gathered on November 17 for a march that began at the city’s Garden of Remembrance dedicated to those who died for Ireland’s freedom in the War of Independence. This is a spot laden with nationalist symbolism and that was not lost on those marching for another kind of freedom. They marched through O’Connell Street, the main thoroughfare, to the Dail, the seat of government. Vigils and marches also took place in Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland — where abortion is legal under British law but virtually unobtainable. Vigils were also held outside the Irish Embassy in London, in the United States with its enormous population of citizens of Irish descent, as well as recent emigrants and throughout the world.
“But I am neither Catholic or Irish; I am Hindu and Indian.”
Public protests, demonstrations and vigils also sprang up in cities and towns in India. There was coverage in both national and local newspapers on a scale not seen since the ‘Quit India’ movement of the 1940s aimed at ending British rule. The Times of India led its online coverage with the headlines: “Ireland murders pregnant Indian dentist,” and “Savita would not have died in an Indian hospital.” Cyberspace reverberated with Savita’s retort on learning she was being denied an abortion on legal and religious grounds: “But I am neither Catholic or Irish; I am Hindu and Indian.”
Ireland’s image of itself as “a happy go lucky” kind of place, a land of “a hundred thousand welcomes,” as peddled by the Irish Tourist Board, was being challenged by another image, that of a backward and hostile environment in regard to the reproductive rights of women.