Six years ago, Dr. Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital from a septic miscarriage after being denied an abortion. But her death would not be in vain. It would go on to inspire a generational change in the country that led to the legalization of abortion.
Back in 1982, Irish voters approved the Eighth Amendment which gave an unborn fetus the same protection as its mother, making it nearly impossible for women to have an abortion.
So when Dr. Savita Halappanavar was admitted to the hospital for a septic miscarriage, doctors would not remove the fetus until they could no longer detect a heartbeat.
According to Halappanavar’s husband, doctors knew the fetus would not survive, but they still refused to remove it, even as her condition worsened.
On October 27, 2012, six days after Halappanavar was admitted to the hospital, doctors finally removed the fetus because they could no longer detect a heartbeat. Halappanavar fell into a coma and died the next day of organ failure caused by septic shock.
Halappanavar’s death became the catalyst for an important conversation in Ireland about women’s health.
“When Savita died, that was kind of the point at which people my age, in that kind of young bracket, were made aware of what was going on,” Melissa Barnes, a 20-year-old medical student, told the New York Times. “We weren’t even around when the Eighth Amendment was introduced.”
In May 2018, 66.4% of Irish citizens voted to overturn the most restrictive abortion ban in the developed world.
In September 2018, Irish Prime minister Michael D. Higgins signed a bill that repealed the Eighth Amendment, clearing the way for legislation that will allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy within the first 12 weeks.
“Harry Potter” star Emma Watson, 28, marked the occasion by penning an open letter to Dr. Halappanavar that appeared in Net-a-Porter.
In the letter, Watson praises Halappanavar’s “thousand-watt smile and palpable enthusiasm” and her family's support for repeal campaign campaign saying Ireland’s “repealers” owe “your family a great debt.”
Here’s an excerpt:
Dear Dr Savita Halappanavar,
You didn’t want to become the face of a movement; you wanted a procedure that would have saved your life. When news of your death broke in 2012, the urgent call to action from Irish activists reverberated around the world – repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution...
A note on your memorial in Dublin read, “Because you slept, many of us woke.” That the eighth amendment enabled valuing the life of an unborn fetus over a living woman was a wake-up call to a nation. For you, and those forced to travel to the UK to access safe, legal abortion, justice was hard-won. From Argentina to Poland, restrictive abortion laws punish and endanger girls, women and pregnant people. Still, Northern Ireland’s abortion law predates the lightbulb. In your memory, and towards our liberation, we continue the fight for reproductive justice.