Indian Woman’s Death May Lead To Abortion Policy Shift In Ireland

Photo of Savita at a protest in Belfast (Photo: AP)

The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian woman living in Ireland, has the potential of finally causing a shift in Irish policy regarding abortion. Abortion, a subject still rife with taboo in Ireland, has been brought to the forefront of policy debate following the decision of an Irish hospital to refuse to terminate Halappanavar’s pregnancy despite repeated requests. That refusal ultimately led to her passing from blood poisoning.

Following thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Dublin and other cities, the Irish government has vowed to address the issue, although it remains vague about exactly what steps will be taken:

“I was deeply disturbed yesterday by what Savita’s husband said. I don’t think as a country we should allow a situation where women’s rights are put at risk in this way,” deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore told parliament on Thursday.

“There is no question of equivocation. We need to bring legal clarity to this issue and that is what we are going to do.”

Irish law does not specify under what circumstances the threat to the life or health of the mother is high enough to justify a termination, leaving doctors to decide. Critics say this means doctors’ personal beliefs can play a role.

Any change of policy likewise faces an uphill climb in final passage, as the current governing coalition is made up of both center-left and socially conservative politicians.

This possible shift is taking shape due to both domestic and international pressures. India is taking the death of one of its citizens extremely seriously, potentially opening a rift between the two countries. The Indian Foreign Office summoned the Irish Ambassador on Friday to express the “concern and angst in Indian society about the untimely and tragic death.” Halappanavar’s parents have likewise taken to Indian television to condemn Irish abortion laws. “In an attempt to save a four-month-old fetus they killed my … daughter. How is that fair you tell me?” Mrs. Halappanavar’s mother asked in an interview.

However, it is unlikely that any shift in Irish policy will be enough to align them with India. Ireland possesses one of the world’s most restrictive set of abortion laws, while India has one of the most liberal:

Policy permits abortion in cases: India Ireland
To save the life of a woman Yes Yes
To preserve physical health Yes No
To preserve mental health Yes No
Rape or incest Yes No
Fetal impairment Yes No
Economic or social reasons Yes No
Available on request No No

Source: Population Policy Data Bank maintained by the Population Division of the Department for Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat