Content Warning: In this episode, we will cover the story of Savita Halappanavar, Miss P and Miss Y. These stories include grotesque medical mistreatment, sexual assault, and death. Listener discretion is advised throughout.
In October 2012, just one month after the first March for Choice, Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital after being refused an abortion. Her story forever changed the conversation around abortion access in Ireland. In this episode, we will talk about her and the other stories that became public around this time, highlighting the barbarity of the 8th Amendment. We also cover the introduction of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, and how it's obvious failures only served to make activists more determined to Repeal the 8th. Links to additional resources are below.
We spoke with Emily Waszak, Alison Spillane, Maeve Taylor, Eddie Conlon for this episode.
If you would like to help increase access to abortion in Ireland and elsewhere, please consider donating to the Abortion Support Network.
Dublin remembers Savita with a 'Never Again' march, The Hindu, 18 November 2012
Thousands march in Dublin over abortion rights, The Guardian 17 November 2012
Savita Halappanavar - Irish embassy protest over death, BBC, 16 November 2012
Abortion Rights Campaign archive entries for PLDPA
UN: Irish abortion law treats women as 'vessels', Irish Examiner 16 July 2014
Written and edited by Deirdre Kelly and Aisling Dolan. Narrated by Aisling Dolan. Produced by Deirdre Kelly, Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Tara Lonij, Davy Quinlivan
Music: A Dream
Written By Jessie Marie Villa, Matthew Wigton
Performed By Jessie Villa
Produced ByJessie VillaSupport the show
Maeve: I'm a treaty monitoring body nerd at this point, so.. *laughter from interviewer*
Narrator Aisling [00:00:06] Welcome back to How the Yes Was Won a podcast about the Eighth Amendment.
Before we start this episode, some content warnings. This episode covers some distressing topics, including death, medical mistreatment and sexual assault. Listener discretion is advised.
On the 21st of October 2012, Savita Halappanavar went to Galway University Hospital because she was miscarrying. On the 23rd of October, her waters had broken, but she still had not miscarried. She asked her doctor for an abortion as she was in pain, but was refused because of the Eighth Amendment. On the 28th of October, at the age of 31, she developed sepsis and died. Today, we're going to tell her story and talk about the impact that she had on the pro-choice movement in Ireland.
This is Emily Waszak from MERJ, Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice.
Emily: In 2012, Savita Halappanavar was a pregnant woman living in Galway. She was a migrant woman of Indian descent, and she went into a Galway hospital. She was very, very ill, and because of that she and her husband asked for a termination to save her life, essentially. She was told that Ireland is a Catholic country and abortion is illegal.
They begged to save her life and they said No, as long as there is a foetal heartbeat, there's nothing they could do. So she died. And I don't know, that kind of was a galvanising force, the first March for Choice that had been organised by what became the Abortion Rights Campaign had just happened in September, and that was in October. So there was already a base of people mobilising. And so this was really kind of a catalyst for sparking what would become a movement.
Alison: October Savita Halappanavar died. And it was just like things exploded, like, you know, and I suppose that was a point where people realised that this.. “OK, this has to change” like it's it's you know, I think particularly for young activists around my age, this was one of the first very public cases we would have known. And, yeah, it just kind of propelled everything forward then.
Narrator Aisling [00:02:27] Then that was Alison Spillane from the Irish Family Planning Association giving a sense of the impact of Savita’s death. This was the moment we realised the Eighth Amendment could kill you. It was no longer abstract. It was something you were now aware of. People who could get pregnant in Ireland realised that it could happen to them or someone they cared about.
Even the team who produced this podcast acknowledged that this was the moment we went from passive objectors to pro-choice activists. Protests took place in cities all over the country and at the Irish Embassy in London. The chant at the protest was “Never Again”. Never Again should the Eighth Amendment kill somebody. The law needed to change. Weekly vigils took place every Wednesday outside the Dáil in Dublin in the months following her death. Around 100 protesters demonstrated outside Ireland's embassy in Delhi. Members of the Indian community in Galway held prayer vigils outside the hospital where she died. Their point was that if she had been treated in India, she would have survived.
Savita’s father called on then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny to change Ireland's strict abortion laws. Pro-Choice activists had always predicted cases like this, here's Eddie Conlon, who you heard in earlier episodes reading a leaflet from the 1983 campaign.
Eddie: All the cases illustrated the inhumanity of what the government had done. So the various cases that women eventually took and then eventually then Savita Halappanavar, really demonstrated what we said. We said women will die. That was our last leaflet that we put out before the campaign. I have a copy of it here. Clearly says 'Women will die' - and they did.
Narrator Aisling [00:04:00] Civil society was now calling for a reform for Ireland's abortion laws. While pregnant people had a theoretical right to abortion if their life was at risk, this had still not been made practicable through legislation. Politicians had still not legislated for the X case. Alison was working as a political assistant in the Dáil in 2012 and told us about working with pro-choice TDs to push the issue politically.
Alison: I was working with Mick Wallace, obviously, and then Clare Daly and Joan Collins trying to move stuff at the political level. So we would have worked at the beginning of 2012, we actually asked the Irish Family Planning Association in for a meeting, to talk about the A,B,C case and how to progress things and kind of discuss with them the possibility of like tabling a Private Member's bill on the X case.
It was all that we kind of felt we could do within like the confines of the Eighth Amendment, basically. And we thought it might be a mechanism for forcing the Dáil to debate it. So, yeah, we worked with the IFPA to draft a bill to legislate for X, and that was Clare tabled that initially in April 2012 and gawd it was just destroyed.. like I mean, like Fine Gael and Labour had this huge majority at the time, like, so we were just crushed. Like we got 20 votes like, versus like jeez a hundred and something. And yeah, that was, you know, that was tough like. And then but then obviously after Savita died, Clare reintroduced the bill again and we thought surely like like this case has illustrated so clearly the problem, like, you know, the lack of legal clarity, this kind of vacuum that like doctors and women are supposed to just figure their way through, like, you know, like that was just crushed again, slightly, slightly more. I think we've got 27 Yes votes, you know. But yeah. So there was kind of there was just all this stuff happening, I suppose at the same time in different spheres.
Some of the language definitely, I would think moderated. And you had a lot more kind of nonsense acknowledgement of terrible tragedies. And you're like.. with no kind of, not joining the dots, that there was political responsibility to prevent those tragedies like. You did of a couple of politicians. I think particularly people like Regina Doherty and Simon Harris, I think changed their position as a result of the Savita Halappanavar case. But no, you still had some pretty, like, nasty stuff. Like, I'm pretty sure there was Fine Gael like some nonsense about like walk in, walk out abortions, like, you know, and just kind of like that. This was like, you know, we're talking about the X case, but really we wanted free, safe, legal. Clare Daly was like “yeah, it's not a secret. I'm a pro-choice TD. Like, this is literally all I can do within the confines of the Constitution”. But like all this kind of.. yeah. And definitely a lot of that rhetoric that really wasn't just coming from like the right, the political right, like across the spectrum for a long time. This 'nobody wants abortion on demand'. Like I've been hearing that from politicians for years and the whole time going, “that's exactly what I want!”. OK, that's not an effective advocacy strategy. How about I give you some different language to talk about this issue like?
Part of like the kind of action on X demands were like Repeal. But I think it was a kind of it was kind of we're trying to create like an urgency around the 20th anniversary and that like at the bare minimum. And I think there's there's different perspectives on that like. I mean, I think for me, I definitely saw it as like the wedge to kind of try and to open the door like. But I think others, you know, I'm sure others would disagree and say that we should have just focused on Repeal from the get go and maybe that delayed us, you know, but I think it's amazing where we are now in 2019 in terms of like political opinion, like in 2012, like there wasn't a chance in hell of getting a referendum bill through the Oireachtas.
Narrator Aisling [00:07:39] While activists were campaigning for legislation on the X case from outside the government, the expert group that had been formed by the government in the wake of the ruling on the A, B and C cases that we mentioned in the last episode, were just preparing their findings.
Here's Maeve Taylor from the IFPA.
Maeve: It should not have taken the death of a woman, to show parliamentarians that risk to life meant risk of death. It shouldn't have taken that, but there was just this deep seated view that, the argument that women had a right to abortion if their life was at risk, there was a deep seated view, I think, and a prejudice that that was some sort of abstract feminist argument that was, you know, rather than something real that happened.
And the counterargument was always that Ireland is the safest place in the world to have a baby, and which could be proved with figures which were based on really poor data gathering. So on its own terms, in terms of those numbers, they weren't they were not well gathered, but also to set your standard of good care as being only 'this number of women die', as opposed to the experience, the outcome, the health of women. So the idea that preventing women from dying is good enough in the context of pregnancies, it's really outrageous. And that's something that we've had to grapple with.
So in 2012 a woman died, and she died in circumstances where hospital staff consulting the Constitution, believed that they had to keep monitoring a foetal heartbeat while she was dying. And they delayed intervening in an inevitable miscarriage, where she had, she was going into septic shock. So by the time they intervened, she went into septic shock and it was it was too late. And the report into her death made very clear that there are many things going on in terms of the hospital care, but that the Constitution was front and centre in the decision making, that if it hadn't been for the Eighth Amendment, her treatment would have been very different. That doctors were, that the help, the care team were actively monitoring the foetal heartbeat because they believed that the Eighth Amendment required them to protect the life of the unborn, which is exactly what the Eighth Amendment says - “ the life of the unborn equally with the mother”.
And then her death brought people to the streets and, you know, it sort of galvanised. There hadn't been an opportunity, I think, for people to kind of come together and express what they really felt about the Eighth Amendment and about women in maternity care and about abortion. So to help Savita Halappanavar's death and like, it shouldn't have taken it, but it she her death brought women out into the streets. And I think that a lot of people would say that, you know, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act and everything that followed were as a result of Savita Halappanavar’s death. And I think that that gives parliamentarians far too much credit for responsiveness to a woman dying.. If there had been nothing else, I don't think they would have said, well, now we have to do something, now we have to introduce legislation. But because this expert group right at the same time was saying you have to bring in legislation, so that women can actually access their right under the Constitution, then they had to do that. So it's like the you know, the the expert group report was sort of, you know, trundling along on these rails, which I think a lot of people within the Department of Health and the Oireachtas would have liked to see going off down some sideline. But that was brought back into parliament because of the outrage Savita Halappanavar’s death
Narrator Aisling [00:11:28] Government debates began on what will become the new legislation governing abortion access in Ireland to implement the ruling of the A,B & C case - the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act or PLDPA - an awful name by any standard. And the law wasn't much better.
Maeve:In January 2013, they organised these discussions about the what became the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, and they had three days, so they had the legal day. So they brought in the constitutional lawyers and they brought in the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and they brought in the human rights framework, but very much constitutional lawyers, barristers - the serious people.
The second day they brought in the health people - they brought in the doctors, they brought in the gynaecologists, they brought in the Irish Family Planning Association. I mean, they brought in the kind of old male gynaecologists and the young women gynaecologists. And they they were like the stars of the whole thing, the young women gynaecologists. They were amazing.
And on the third day, they brought in civil society organisations and the churches were, you know, they had a different panels and the churches were maybe the third session. So the positioning of the churches in relation to the issue was completely turned upside down. They weren't there as the dominant moral voice who must advise us on issues in relation to the unborn and who must advise us on issues of morality. They were there as as advocates, you know, and like the IFPA was there that the health voice in the middle. So that was a really powerful shift and a change.
And I think the role of women parliamentarians in that process was really powerful. The media attention was really powerful. So even though all that was happening was discussing legislation to implement the X case, in other words, to put legislative flesh on the bones of a Supreme Court judgement that had established a really, really, really limited and restrictive right to abortion. It stood for something else. It brought abortion out of that toxic space and into a health discussion that we had to have.
Narrator Aisling [00:13:24] The PLDPA was passed by the Oireachtas on the 30th of July 2013. Under the PLDPA, abortion was legal if the pregnancy posed a serious risk to the life - as distinct from the health - of a pregnant person. In any other circumstance abortion was still illegal and was now subject to a 14 year prison sentence. The 14 year sentence was pertinent because by this point, people were accessing abortion pills online through a series of underground suppliers. Needless to say, this was dangerous as well as illegal.
Alison Like we worked on a lot of amendments to try and make that less bad. So that's. Yeah, and we would have been talking to the likes of the IFPA around 'OK, how can we what can we do to it, like certain sections to kind of minimise the harms' and stuff like. You know, we obviously like tabled amendments trying to just like delete the criminal provisions or like remove the 14 year prison sentence. But none of it was flying. *laughs awkwardly*
Yeah, I suppose that was a tough time... Like it was tough in that... And like we were we knew we were making progress then. Like, we knew the fact that they've been like, you know, the state had been forced to do this, like, meant something. But at the same time, you kind of felt, can they not just do it properly? Like and can they not just draft a law that isn't going to be so cumbersome like and so onerous for like women to navigate? But no.. And we would have had a lot of discussions then, like with the staff in the Oireachtas and stuff like that, like the kind of group of left wing TDs who were kind of working together just around what to do politically with this, like when like none of our amendments had succeeded and whether to support this bill or not, basically, you know, because at that time it's changed since but at that time, in the Oireachtas, you couldn't register an abstention, so you could only vote for or against something. If you didn't vote like there was no public record of that, so that it wasn't an option to have, like, you know, a principled abstention to the bill.
Like but obviously, on the one hand, it was huge that this was finally being addressed. But then, like you'd like pro-choice TDs ultimately, who were just like “I can't vote for a 14 year prison sentence”, you know, so a lot of them and I think they divided, but a lot of them voted against it. And there was little you know, it's changed now, but there was certainly a small bit of backlash from some of the activists at that time that, you know, but like, you know, if you're pro-choice, it's very hard to vote for criminal sanctions full stop, but like criminal sanctions that harsh, like, you know, and a bill that was just like we knew in practise, like even though the whole idea behind it was to make this very limited right accessible in practise just made it as bloody difficult as possible, you know. And we knew the women who like should have been eligible under it were, you know, just going to really struggle to get that access like. So yeah, I think when it went through, like, yeah, I remember feeling, you know, I feel like the reaction generally amongst the activist community was very muted. You know, it was just kind of like, oh, this isn't you know, this could have been better.. Like, you know, it was always going to be restrictive, but it could have been better like, but I also think it was very much like, “OK... Repeal.” You know, there was definitely after that there was no conversations about, OK, well, maybe we could try and amend this bill in six months. It was like, no, “OK, referendum.” like. “They cannot be trusted to do this properly. Give us a referendum.” And I think it it like focused people's minds and just kept that kind of energy building I think yeah.
Maeve:And then at the same time, there was this parallel process, of human rights advocacy in other forums. The next process was the Human Rights Committee in 2014. And the Human Rights Committees... It's a committee of international experts and they are mostly lawyers and they're mostly men. And for many years, the Human Rights Committee deservedly had a reputation of seeing women's rights as kind of soft, and seeing women's rights as something that well, there's a there's a committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, so the Human Rights Committee doesn't need to look at these issues. But trying to get them to see women's rights and abortion in particular as in their sphere has traditionally been very difficult.
In 2014, I think one thing that was very powerful was that there were also representatives there of organisations working on symphysiotomy and Justice for Magdalenes. So historic and current state abuse of women's reproductive and sexual rights, was on the agenda. The State argued that it had fulfilled its human rights obligations because under Article, I think, 25 of the International Convention on Civil Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is all about elections, it's about transparency and information in elections. So the State's argument claimed that all of the referendums and the Oireachtas committees and all these processes which had led ultimately to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, that that had fulfilled the requirements to consult with the people, and that the people were in favour, majority of people had voted for the Eighth Amendment. The Oireachtas had fulfilled the people's will by introducing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. What they were arguing, in effect was majority rule. The majority gets to decide what human rights are, like what the content of human rights are. So you don't tell that... You don't tell human rights experts that “we hold votes to decide what rights are protected”, because that is that is utterly against human rights.
So they made this bad human rights argument. And it was amazing, that the committee.. when these committees get angry, they get really angry. And we we have been told, you know, the chair, Sir Nigel Rodley, he won't intervene much. Don't don't talk to him.. He’ll...He'll just, you know, moderate the proceedings, but he won't be involved. He thundered from the top table about both, about the appalling arguments that the State had made. And they demanded that the state withdraw its arguments about how the referendums had, you know, established that the majority was in favour of the constitutional ban on abortion as a human rights argument. He also took the State to task.. and he spoke a lot about the impact of women, of the denial of abortion. And he used this phrase that the law considers women to be 'merely a vessel' for the unborn. Again, he was actually talking in quite a limited way. He was talking very specifically about women who have been raped, being considered that their rights weren't in the picture and that they were considered merely a vessel for the unborn. But that term, the “not a vessel” it was was taken up particularly by the Abortion Rights Campaign. And that became.. it just became that the phrase of the whole human rights process.
So when they see a pattern of violations of women's reproductive and sexual rights, completely undeniable because it was abortion and symphysiotomy and Justice for Magdalenes and incarceration of women. So that pattern there is a historical pattern of state abuse, and the role of the State in the violations of rights and the denial of care was really clear. So when they took that on, they really took that on and then were also really angered by the State having made these very poor and arguments that were actually quite offensive to the spirit of human rights.
And, you know, this is the voices of women who have been denied care that the IFPA has been supporting for years. And this is their experience that's contributing to this excoriating critique by a human rights body and that was really powerful to be in that state and again, to see something that, you know, that you feel so personally and that you work for every day, and again, to see it taken into this human rights space and someone is saying, yeah - “the State is accountable to women”. This isn't just stories that we tell each other. This isn't kind of just sad stuff that happens women - the state is accountable, the state is not fulfilling rights. It's violating these rights. And the government increasingly is backed into this corner of look, yeah, “we accept that this is a serious issue,but the Constitution”. And yes, we accept women you know, “this is not a good situation, women are having to travel. But the Constitution...”. So.. whereas before it was “the Constitution is the perfect mirror of Irish morality”. Now it was 'the obstacle is the Constitution'. And there was still a bit of, you know, still a bit of this… The state did, for a very long time present the Eighth Amendment as something that absolutely reflected, not only reflected the kind of moral identity and core moral, a core moral belief of the Irish people. But the state in any international forums, including before the European Court of Human Rights, would talk about all the different referendums as if these were a reaffirmation of the Eighth Amendment. So we've had five referendums, one of which inserted the Eighth Amendment, two of which tried to restrict the right under the X case and didn't fail, two of which were to give women rights to access abortion elsewhere, which passed. So these were by no means reaffirming the Eighth Amendment. These were by no means the people kind of spontaneously rising up and voicing their moral views by way of referendum.
So this pressure was coming from the United Nations treaty bodies and it was coming from indirectly the European Court of Human Rights, because it had kind of started the ball rolling with the ruling in the A,B and C case. And then it was also coming at home and increasingly civil society was mobilising. So it's like once that ice was cracked, you know, and the sort of surge of floodwater started coming up, there was no going back. Everything was moving towards Repeal.
Narrator Aisling [00:23:09] It's easy to look back now and see things were ultimately moving towards Repeal. But people in 2014 still had to live under this awful law. After Savita, more and more stories started to come out about the cruel ways in which women were treated. Again, most of these women were identified only by letters, they remain nameless, but we felt we knew them.
*content warning* The next few minutes will contain some graphic details of medical mistreatment and mentions of sexual assault. It is extremely distressing. And if you need to switch the episode off now, please do so.
Maeve The PP case where a woman, brain death had been found in a woman who was, I think, 15 or 16 weeks pregnant. And the hospital, because the foetus.. there was still a foetal heartbeat. So the hospital, they use it, they the polite term is somatic care. So basically they went to extraordinary measures to maintain like biological life in order to support the life of a foetus. And again, you know, what you had to do to a body after the brain is death, is dead and the the impact that that might have on the health of the foetus, even if it survived and the complete regard to the dignity of the woman and the wishes of her family. But that was the belief that the doctors believed they were required to do that, grotesque as it was.
Emily: In terms of the Miss Y case, Miss Y was an asylum seeker, who came to Ireland. And when she got here, she realised she was pregnant. She immediately asked for an abortion, and was told she could not get one in Ireland because it was illegal. Again, she begged for an abortion. She was kind of passed around from bureaucracy to bureaucracy. She went to the IFPA, you know, the Department of Justice.. No one really knew what to do. She had become pregnant as a result of rape. It was really traumatic for her, the pregnancy just in general. She actually, she made it out of Ireland illegally, to get an abortion in England, but she was turned away when she got there. And again, this is why I think it's critical that we.. that when we talk about the Eighth Amendment, we realise that it doesn't exist in a vacuum. You know, she might have been able to get an abortion in England. She might have been able to present as an asylum seeker in England. But it was, you know, European EU border laws that actually prevented her from getting that abortion, not just the Eighth Amendment.
So she was returned to Ireland. She said she was suicidal. And under the PLDPA, of course, there is a provision for the risk of the mother’s, or the pregnant person's life, including by suicide. She was suicidal, but she was found “not suicidal enough”. And so they decided to wait and make sure that she could have a C-section. So she went on hunger strike and she wouldn't take food or water, and they forcibly rehydrated her and kept her alive long enough to perform a Caesarean section on her. And yeah, they they actually consider that under the PLDPA, they actually consider that a termination, which is by any standard cruel and unusual and horrific. It's just like even the thought of it is just... We should all be ashamed.
Something that we always talk about is that it's not a coincidence that Savita Halappanavar a woman of colour, died, because she was denied a termination. It's about the misogyny of the Eighth Amendment, but it's also about the racism that's.. that people of colour face in Ireland, especially women of colour in maternity services in Ireland. We see that all the time. We continue to see that - 40% of maternal deaths in Ireland are migrant women, which is staggering. So I think that, while it was good that something.. something good and positive, like the movement to Repeal the Eighth Amendment came out of something horrific and tragic as Savita Halappanavar’s death. I think that in terms of the narrative, in terms of the messaging, a trick was missed because that was the perfect opportunity to talk about misogyny and racism as interconnected. But instead there was a focus on the Eighth Amendment, which.. look it needed to be focussed, because that is ultimately what killed her. But I think that we have no way of knowing, sort of.. or no way of quantifying what role race played. And it wasn't none.
So so, again, I think Savita and Miss Y’s cases, again, it's no coincidence that the two high profile cases were women of colour. So these cases helped us, really illustrate the points that we had been making and kind of our analysis around race, class and gender. But I think that, for a lot of people, they might have played into the kind of like 'sad migrant' narrative, in which case we can read these stories, we can cry about them, we can wring our hands, and then “we”, you know, Irish people can decide how to fix it rather than looking at migrants as not only victims of abuse and racism and misogyny, but also people with agency and people best placed to create an analysis around how power works in terms of the Eighth Amendment. And come up with strategy around how to Repeal the Eighth Amendment even.
*outro musics starts playing in the background until the end of the episode*
Narrator Aisling[00:29:20] So, by late 2014, there was pressure for reform on all sides, activists and some politicians now saw there was only one option left - Repeal the Eighth.
Next episode will cover the campaign to push for a referendum, and some of the other changes in our society that paved the way for this.
Narrator Davy [00:29:41] Many thanks to Emily Waszak, Alison Spillane, Maeve Taylor, Eddie Conlon for speaking to us for this episode.
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How The Yes Was Won was researched, produced and edited by Aisling Dolan, Emma Callaghan, Davy Quinlivan, Tara Lonji, and Deirdre Kelly. Additional recording support from Fin Dwyer. See you next time.