But after decades of struggle, Ireland has finally booted out the law, with 66.4% voting for legalising abortions, while 33.6% voted against it.

How the tragic death of a dentist from Karnataka forced Ireland to change abortion law
news Law Saturday, May 26, 2018 - 22:50

“I have been struggling for six years, I was praying for this change,” says Anadanappa Yalagi, a retired engineer from Karnataka’s Belagavi district as results of a historic vote that changed Ireland’s constitution were announced. 

An overwhelming number of people had voted yes to legalise abortion in Ireland and to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution. The Eighth Amendment that was introduced in 1983 treated the life of a mother and unborn child as equal, and till 2013 did not allow abortions even if the mother’s life was at risk.

But after decades of struggle, Ireland has finally booted out the law, with 66.4% voting for legalising abortions, while 33.6% voted against it. 

It was the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, which triggered the massive citizens’ movement in Ireland, resulting in this landmark decision.  

What happened to Savita Halappanavar

On October 21, 2012, Savita, a dentist by profession from Belagavi, was 17 weeks pregnant with her first child. She and her husband were ecstatic over the pregnancy but their dreams came crashing down when she was admitted to the University Hospital Galway after she complained of severe back pain.

Within hours, medical staff at the hospital had suggested to Savita that a miscarriage was inevitable. When Savita sought an abortion, she was refused as a foetal heartbeat could be heard. The doctors suggested that the pregnancy must end naturally as abortion was illegal in the Catholic country.

Savita’s condition deteriorated immediately. The doctors had informed her family that the risk of infection was high as the foetal membranes had ruptured; the Halappanavars asked whether it was possible to medically induce the miscarriage.

According to The Guardian, a consultant later recalled saying: “Under Irish law, if there’s no evidence of risk to the life of the mother, our hands are tied as long there’s a foetal heart [beat].” No intervention took place at this stage as well.

On the morning of October 24, 2012, Savita was diagnosed with infection and she later went into septic shock. Although the medical team had decided to medically induce an abortion, it was too late. Savita miscarried and was subsequently admitted to intensive care, where she died on October 28, 2012.

The aftermath

When the news of Savita’s death broke, thousands of people held candlelit vigils and protests across Ireland. Thousands of women took part in protests demanding that women be allowed to have access to legal abortions.

Savita was held as the tragic example of the Irish law and the protestors had said that the country had failed to protect women,

Pro-choice campaigners, and over 100 organisations including human rights, feminist and pro-choice organisations, trade unions, health organisations, NGOs and community organisations had joined hands for the movement to repeal the 8th Amendment.

In 2017, tens of thousands took to the streets of Dublin for the annual ‘March for Choice’. Those who were pro-life claimed that Savita’s death was being distorted by those with an agenda to liberalise Ireland’s laws. The Catholic bishops of Ireland were dead set against changing the legal structure.

Now, over five years after her death, Savita’s father says that his wish has been fulfilled. For Andanappa, the historic vote is personal. “I knew it in my bones that the people of Ireland would vote yes and repeal the 8th amendment. It was because of this law that my daughter died. Everyone knew she was going to die. There was time to save her. And yet no one could help because of one single law,” Andanappa tells TNM.

Andanappa says he grieves for his daughter more on this day than ever before. “I am a father. I can only wish this law had been repealed when my daughter was crying out for help. I hope no other father has to feel the way I do. I miss her every single day. I am happy that a change has been brought in and if Savita was the face for this change, then I am sure that she is happy where ever she is now,” Andanappa says, as he breaks down.

For over five years, Andanappa has helped pro-choice activists in Ireland in their campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment. He has sent video messages all the way from India, asking people to repeal this draconian law.

“Although, I have never gone to Ireland to campaign for the cause after my daughter passed away, activists have been in touch with me through video calls, WhatsApp and many other platforms. They ask me to make video messages, appealing to the people to change this law. We have struggled for so many years now. I am happy that the people of Ireland remembered my daughter while voting for change,” he adds.

For Savita - Never Again from Christopher Tierney on Vimeo.

How Savita’s death changed abortion laws in Ireland

The new law enacted in 2013

The rigid Irish laws on abortion was amended in 2013.  Although the new Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act did not completely legalise abortion, it was however, allowed under certain conditions.

This amendment legalised abortion when doctors determined that the pregnant woman’s life is in danger or if the woman is at a risk of committing suicide. However, the law also introduces a penalty of 14 years imprisonment in case of unlawful abortion.

This happened after an inquiry into Savita’s death had revealed that she would not have died if it had been legally possible to terminate the pregnancy earlier.

An investigation commissioned by the Health Service Executive, had found there had been an over-emphasis on the need not to intervene until the foetal heart had stopped. The commission had recommended necessary constitutional changes in the abortion law.

The UN recommends a referendum in 2015

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had recommended that a referendum on abortion be held in Ireland.

The UN had said that in cases of rape and incest and risk of a woman’s health due to the pregnancy and the lack of clarity on what constitutes as risk were serious concerns in the 2013 law.

The committee had also stated that a revision of the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was necessary.

The 2017 Citizens’ Assembly votes

The Citizens' Assembly voted to recommend the unrestricted access to women regarding abortions. The Citizens’ Assembly voted 64% in favour of having no restrictions on abortions in early pregnancy.

However, anti-abortion activists and pro-choice campaigners demanded more clarity and the Irish government decided to hold a referendum in 2018.

The 2018 referendum

On Friday, the people of Ireland voted for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment, which had held abortions illegal in the country.


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