At 4pm today outside the Irish consulate in Edinburgh, about fifty people came to stand vigil for Savita Halappanavar, to sign Diwali cards for Enda Kenny and James Reilly.
This week Savita should have been celebrating Diwali with her family and with the Indian community in Galway. She and her husband should have been together, mourning the loss of her first pregnancy.
The child within her almost dead. Its heart
sputtered away but did not ever stop.
And as it died, its dying drop by drop
leaked poison into her. And every part
each organ started dying. Doctors said
that while the child retained a spark of life
faith had decreed they could not use a knife
to end it. Not until the child was dead
and so she died as well. She had no choice,
soon no life either. Poison in her blood
vomit and fever. And the pious good
religious doctors listened to her voice
as it grew fainter. Let her die. Our tears
for all they’ve killed just like her, all these years.
We tried to light candles to make Savita’s name in lights – but the Edinburgh breezes foiled our efforts. Nuns from the Order of Perpetual Indulgence sat vigil on the steps outside the consulate. We stood still, in silence, thinking of this one woman who should have been alive today to celebrate the end of Diwali, thinking of how many women had died this year and past years, because they were denied safe, legal abortion.
This kind of very public pressure from around the world, and above all from within Ireland itself – may be the only thing that will force this Irish government to take legislative action as no other has before.
In Dublin, at about the same time, 20000 people marched from the Garden of Remembrance to the Dáil Eireann.
“The anger extends beyond Ireland,” organiser Sinead Kennedy of the Irish Choice Network told the crowd as they huddled in the rain at the beginning of the march.
“For more than 20 years we have seen political cowardice and inaction on this issue. The theme of this march is ‘never again’. Never again will a woman be allowed to die,” she said.
At the end of the demonstration, several speakers took to a makeshift stage on the back of an old truck to rouse the crowd and whip up a commitment to further protests.
Sinead Ahern of Choice Ireland told them that there were similar demonstrations around Ireland and the world.
“As huge as the crowd is today we are only part of what is happening today. Today we march and today we stand in solidarity.”
For twenty years Irish governments have been told that they must establish an accessible and effective procedure for women to have abortions in Ireland when their life is at risk.
For twenty years Irish governments have played out a fiction: pretending that abortions do not take place in Ireland and at the same time claiming that any woman who needs medical treatment to end her pregnancy can have it – so long as it’s not called an abortion and it’s not counted as an abortion:
The purpose of this extraordinary position is about the only thing that is clear in this whole area. It is to keep abortions, even those that are lawfully performed in the very restrictive circumstances allowed by the Constitution, under the carpet. Women have a constitutional right to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy.
But the exercise of that right is deliberately “unknown”. It is meant to be a secret. For the women who find themselves in this difficult position, the message is none too subtle: this is not something we talk about. Shame clings to a procedure that logically should produce pride: the saving of a life.
We do not know how many other women were in the same danger as Savita in the past 20 years: we do not know if they got an abortion in an Irish hospital, if they understood – as Savita and Parveen Halappanavar did not – that they had to get themselves discharged and get on a plane to Liverpool or London at once, or if in some instances the woman died, and the husband, assured by the doctors that everything possible had been done – believed them, and accepted his wife’s death as inevitable: kept silence.
Parveen Halappanavar broke that silence this week. Pressure is on in India to demand that Ireland change its laws.
Jagadish Shettar, the chief minister of Karnataka, where Savita Halappanavar’s family live, said publicly yesterday:
“Humanity is above all law, and one needs to take cognisance of it. Such a thing should not have happened with Savita. The state government will write a letter to the Irish authorities.”
It will be a curious experience for the Irish government: usually when they receive letters referring to a “precious life” and calling on “humanity above all law” they are from prolifers demanding that things stay as they are. (Until 1980, Ireland had restrictive laws banning the sale of all contraception: which would suggest strongly an even higher abortion rate then than now, when four to five thousand women make the journey overseas each year.)
Jagadish Shettar wrote in his condolence letter to Savita’s family:
“I have learnt from the media reports about the incidents leading to her death. I am pained to know that a precious life was lost because proper medical care was refused. I have also learnt from media reports that the doctor refused to take proper steps citing religious reasons. It is my belief that with required medical attention her life could have been saved.”
Two inquiries are to be carried out by the hospital and by the Irish government, to find out what was said and what was done – and not done – and the minutiae of medical decisions are worth uncovering. But legislation need not wait on investigation.
But we do know that for twenty years successive Irish governments were warned over and over again that guidelines, regulations, and legislation were absolutely essential – and yet, they took no action. The Supreme Court of Ireland told them in 1992: the Irish Family Planning Association told them repeatedly: the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women told them in 2005: the European Court of Human Rights told them in 2010: the UN’s report on human rights in member states warned Ireland in October 2011 that Ireland’s unique refusal to provide abortions to its citizenry must be remedied to bring Ireland into line with international human rights law.
The Irish government cannot say they didn’t know. They did know. They just chose not to pay attention.
In effect, for forty-five years, Ireland has been outsourcing this part of their health service to neighbouring EU states at the patient’s expense and by the charity of others – while Irish governments did nothing except hold committee meetings and make reports, refusing to make the legislative change these thousands of women have needed for decades.
The chant on the streets of Dublin today was “Legislate now!” and “Never again!”
I was asked at the protest today to set up a petition: but I honestly think that letters and emails making a strong case for legislation will have more effect.
Write to Dr. James Reilly, Minister for Health, at Department of Health, Hawkins House, Dublin 2, Ireland
Write to Enda Kenny, The Taoiseach, at Department of the Taoiseach, Government Buildings, Upper Merrion Street, Dublin 2, Ireland