By Shreya Maskara
On May 25, about 3.2 million Irish voters cast their vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which was one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
What is the Eight Amendment?
The Eight Amendment clause, inserted into the Irish constitution in 1983, recognised an equal right to life for both mother and her unborn child, thus making abortion illegal in the country in almost all cases, allowing no exceptions even for fatal fetal abnormalities, rape or incest.
In recent years there had been calls to do away with this restrictive law.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned in favour of the referendum, said, “What we’ve seen is the culmination of a quiet revolution that’s been taking place in Ireland over the past 20 years”. Varadkar added that Ireland’s voters “trust and respect women to make the right choices and decisions about their own healthcare”.
The “quiet revolution,” which saw Irish women return from all over to world to vote in the referendum, was catalysed in 2012 by the death of an Indian dentist due to the country’s restrictive abortion laws.
Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist from India, was around 17 weeks pregnant in 2012 when she started to experience immense back pain while in Ireland. Halappanavar, who was pregnant with her first child, reached went to the University Hospital Galway for help on October 21. The medical staff soon concluded that a miscarriage was inevitable, and decided to allow the pregnancy to end naturally.
After the Halappanavar family was told about the risk of infection, they enquired about getting an abortion three separate times but were denied the request due to the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution. Halappanavar’s father said in an interview with The Guardian that a doctor said to him, “This is a Catholic country — we cannot terminate because the fetus is still alive.”
Three days after being admitted, Halappanavar was diagnosed with sepsis due to the complications from the pregnancy and later with septic shock. Although the medical staff formulated a plan to administer Halappanavar a drug to induce an abortion, this was never done, according to a report in The Guardian. Hours later, Halappanavar miscarried and was then admitted to intensive care, where she died on October 28.
The aftermath of Halappanavar’s death
Following Halappanavar’s death, an investigation by Ireland’s national health service concluded that “the lack of clear clinical guidelines and training is considered to have been a material contributory factor” in her death, and that “similar incidents with a similar clinical context could happen again,” unless the law was changed.
Halappanavar’s death outraged people in Ireland and abroad, and thousands rallied outside the Irish parliament in 2012 after news of her death broke. Several marches and vigils were held, and ultimately, her name became synonymous with calls to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Finally, in 2013, Ireland passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which allowed abortion legally if the mother’s life was deemed to be at risk. However, this still wasn’t enough as under the new law, abortion pills were still illegal and doctors faced up to 14 years in prison if they “wrongfully” carried out an abortion.
Due to these restrictive laws, over 3,500 Irish women would travel abroad to have abortions, and over 2,000 would purchase abortion pills illegally to self-administer abortions with no medical guidance, according to The Guardian.
A day before the referendum on May 25, Halappanavar’s father Andanappa Yalagi said in an interview, ”I hope the people of Ireland remember my daughter Savita on the day of the referendum, and that what happened to her won’t happen to any other family.”
“It’s still very emotional after five years. I think about her every day. She didn’t get the medical treatment she needed because of the eighth amendment. They must change the law,” he said.
In a historic move, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to lift the ban on abortion, with 66.4% of voters saying yes. The results of the referendum will now pave the way for the Irish parliament to create a more liberal law.
After the result of the referendum was declared, Yalagi, speaking to The Guardian on the phone from Karnataka, said, “I have no words to express my gratitude to the people of Ireland at this historic moment.”
Shreya Maskara is a senior copy editor at Qrius
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