THE SEISMIC IMPACT OF REPEAL
Savita Halappanavar died in University Hospital Galway in 2012. At 17 weeks pregnant, Halappanavar sought an abortion because her foetus was unviable and infected and she was miscarrying. Halappanavar also had sepsis. The hospital refused to give her an abortion, on the basis that the threat to her life was insufficient to justify it, in the light of the provision in the 8th Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland that the 'unborn' have an equal right to life to that of a pregnant woman. On October 28, 2012, Halappanavar died of septicaemia after the dead foetus was finally removed.
Halappanavar’s death caused a national and international outcry, drawing attention to Ireland’s barbaric and patriarchal control of women’s bodies. In 2014, the UN’s human rights committee chair and former UN special rapporteur on torture, Nigel Rodley, accused Ireland’s draconian anti-abortion laws of treating women “as a vessel and nothing more.” His statement inspired a rallying cry among Ireland’s pro-choice women and activists, who took to social media declaring #WeAreNotVessels. The same activists also started chanting “Repeal” – a demand to repeal the Eight Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which prevented abortion. And in 2018, we finally did.
The final results of the abortion referendum surprised many. During the campaign, the somewhat misguided requirement for “balance” in the treatment of referendum issues in broadcast media – along with the presence of American and Canadian anti-choice activists attempting to sway the result – suggested that Ireland was still hugely divided on the issue: that it was men vs. women, rural vs. urban, old vs. young. But the results were consistent across most demographics and regions. 65% of all men voted for Repeal; 70% of women said Yes. An incredible 87% of 18 to 25-year-olds voted for Repeal. So did 63% of 50 to 64-year-olds. As these results indicate, the vote to Repeal represented a fundamental attitude shift across the country, based on a desire to cast off the social and religious shackles that had held back the drive towards equality for far too long.
However, there are gender-related issues that we still have to address. Misogyny was never explicitly mentioned by Repeal campaigners, for fear that the spectre of feminism might be a turn-off for potential 'Yes' voters. There was an emphasis on 'hard cases', further distancing the referendum from the fundamental issue that every woman is entitlerd to autonomy over her own body, not just when a woman or a pregnancy is in danger. It has also been argued that not every woman was represented by the campaign: that those most affected sexual violence, and by health complications during pregnancy and childbirth, felt excluded – including people who are queer, trans or non-binary; women with disabilities; migrant women; and women of colour.
The latter feels particularly odd, given how vital Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death was to revitalising the pro-choice discussion in Ireland, and how central her image and story were to the campaign. Repealing the 8th Amendment was undoubtedly an extraordinary, groundbreaking step towards equality. But we now need to address these other issues of representation head-on, to ensure that equality, autonomy and protection aren’t just accessible to a few, but can be shared by all.