There’s a mural in the Portobello area of Dublin, Ireland, just to the left of Bernard Shaw Pub, that bears the face of a 31-year-old woman who paid the ultimate price of strict abortion laws.
Savita Halappanavar went to an Irish hospital on Oct. 21, 2012, complaining of severe back pain. Initially, she was sent home, but later returned and an exam showed lowering of the gestational sac. Doctors knew the young, married dentist was in the process of miscarrying a 17-week pregnancy.
In agony and health deteriorating, Halappanavar (as well as her husband) requested an abortion. Although the pregnancy was already lost, doctors refused because they detected a fetal heartbeat.
Over the course of the next days, as Halappanavar grew increasingly ill, doctors continued to test for a fetal heartbeat, refusing to provide an abortion so long as one was detected.
On the third day, the miscarriage spontaneously completed, but Halappanavar was already too far gone. She went into a coma before she was transferred to an intensive care unit. Already septic from the ordeal, Halappanavar went into shock, suffered multi-organ failure and died four days later.
After the circumstances of the young woman’s death were published in The Irish Times, thousands gathered for a vigil. By the weekend, more than 20,000 people marched in Dublin alone, and sister marches were held throughout the country. Participants somberly chanted, “Never again.”
Although women’s groups in Ireland had been organizing to repeal the country’s nearly absolute abortion ban, Halappanavar’s unnecessary death was the catalyst for the various movements to link arms, fight harder and move faster.
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Messages left at the mural during and following Ireland’s recent vote to repeal its strict ban on abortion reflect people’s sorrow for not acting sooner, for not making the health and well-being of pregnant women at least as important as that of a fetus.
Despite a surge of unwanted funding and political activism by anti-abortion American groups and individuals, all but one section of Ireland (a far northern area known as Donegal) voted overwhelmingly to repeal the ban. Turnout was just over 64 percent of eligible voters, which The Guardian notes was the third highest for a referendum since the adoption the constitution in 1937. By the end of this year the Irish government is expected to enact laws to allow abortion under 12 weeks, and special circumstances for abortion beyond that point.
None of this, of course, can bring Halappanavar back. But it will help ensure no other women in Ireland will suffer a similar fate. For American women, however, the future remains elusive.
Our nation and our state have forgotten that women and families are the center of the abortion debate, and that complicated medical issues cannot be detangled with a swipe of a governor’s pen. We’ve chosen to look upon our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters with skepticism; to offer them less consideration than we provide our livestock.
Irish women now know, but I’m still waiting to hear: How many Iowa murals must be painted before we agree to trust women?
• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 310-1038, firstname.lastname@example.org