Savita was one of us - we owe her our Yes to Repeal this Friday


At the start of the referendum campaign in March, I took this photograph showing the poster image of Savita, who died because of the 8th amendment, and in the background a huge billboard with a CGI / cartoon of what is meant to be an 11 week old foetus.  Both have the common slogan ‘one of us’ - the photograph invites us to consider if the life of this 31-year-old woman of colour, who was denied a life-saving abortion, really has the same value as an anonymous and unknown 11-week-old foetus.

This is the question we will be voting on this Friday, indeed beyond that we are voting on whether a doctor who gives a life-saving abortion in a Savita-like case should have the threat of a 14-year jail sentence hanging over them - as the 2013 law lays down - whether any of the hundreds of pregnant people taking abortion pills at home in Ireland should be doing so under the risk of that 14-year sentence.  That is the law as it stands - to change it, the 8th must be repealed.

This photograph describes the campaign in another fashion - one that has become much clearer as it has progressed.  The billboard in the background is in Phibsboro, just up the road from the Mater hospital.  Since early in the year it has carried one huge anti-choice ad after another, a massive expenditure of money considering its prime location overlooking one of the busiest intersections in Dublin.  The poster in the foreground on the other hand appears to be a photocopy - the one peeling edge telling us it’s been stuck there with wallpaper paste or similar.  It didn’t last long before it was torn down but it probably cost no more than 10 cent rather than the 10,000 plus euros that the billboard would have cost over the months.  

This speaks to the asymmetry of the two sides in the referendum - a very wealthy No side that entered it with multiple offices, full-time staff and a fund of millions of euros, much of it coming from far-right evangelical Christian organisations in the USA. Together for Yes didn’t even formally exist when this photograph was taken - the Yes campaign started with almost nothing but successfully crowdfunded just enough to fight a campaign on. But if No has spent 10 euro or more for every euro Together for Yes has, it’s the Yes side that has the greater numbers of volunteers, energy and creativity.

That Yes campaign didn’t really start in March 2018 though, it started in October 2012 when news began to circulate that a migrant women who was refused an abortion had died in a Galway hospital.  At first, little was known, not even the women’s name, but if anything positive came out of the death of Savita Halappanavar it is that through her death she gave birth to the movement that was to finally Repeal the 8th Amendment.  Her migrant status has relevance because migrant women have disproportionately been affected by the 8th for a range of reasons, from institutionalised racism to not expecting that medical staff would be forced by law to equate their lives to a foetus.  Some migrant women lack the documentation needed to travel to the UK, many, because of the poverty imposed on them, find it much harder to raise the funds. 

As soon as the news of Savita’s death broke and public outrage made it clear that change was coming, the No campaigns started the protracted smear campaign aimed at Savita, her husband, her parents, journalists and medical staff.  Anyone who spoke the truth that the 8th had contributed to her death could expect to become the target of vitriolic abuse.  After a racist smear campaign aimed at the couple and her parents, the No campaigns moved on to attempt to rewrite what had happened.  They tried to place all the blame on the hospital staff rather than admitting that the 8th amendment had also played a central role.  They tried to claim she had been simply been killed by a sepsis infection, a tactic akin to insisting someone wasn’t killed by a car crash but just from bleeding to death. 

If you have been canvassed by the No campaign you have probably heard the lies about Savita.  You may, for instance, have been told that her family were against her name being used in the campaign, while as early as November 2012 her husband Praveen Halappanavar was telling the Indian newspaper Hindu Times that “I am returning to Galway and will continue to keep the pressure on the Irish government with the support of social groups there to modify the law so that no other woman dies because of a religious law.” In  the same interview, Praveen said, “I repeatedly requested the doctors to terminate the pregnancy and save my wife as she was miscarrying and there was no chance of saving the foetus, in vain.”   see

In the last week of the referendum campaign, in a moved forced on them to counter this particular lie, Savita’s parents Akkamahadevi and Andenappa S. Yalgi recorded a video pleading with the people of Ireland to Vote Yes to Repeal in their daughters name.  Back in 2012, they had said “injustice has been done to us, but it should not happen to any other woman hereafter,” and they appear shocked that the 8th amendment was still in place.  In the video, they address us as “my dear brother and sisters of Ireland” and repeat their 2012 concern that the same might happen to other women, saying, “I hope that people in Ireland will remember the fate of our daughter Savita on the day of the referendum and will vote YES, so what happened to us won't happen to any families."  see

Almost every leader and spokesperson in the No campaign has been on TV or radio and told lies about Savita.  There is the occasional slightly honourable exception.  When one of the few anti-choice doctors to be found was put on Morning Ireland the Tuesday before the referendum, he tried to evade the questions about the role the 8th amendment played in her death but eventually admitted that “ I would consider it a contribution but not the main factor” going on to claim that “I don’t worry about the 8th amendment.”  Whether any particularly doctor worries about the amendment isn’t the issue, it’s whether the threat of the 14 year jail sentence might make a doctor delay treatment rather than risk their liberty, and a very large number of doctors, over 1300 at last count, recognise this and are calling for a Yes vote. listen

The official investigations into Savita’s death were in fact very clear that the 8th amendment played a role in her death.  The HSE report listed the 8th as ‘Key causal factor 2,’ saying, “The investigation team is satisfied that concerns about the law were clear or not impacted on the exercise of clinical professional judgement.”  It went on to conclude that, “The interpretation of the law related to lawful termination in Ireland, and particularly the lack of clear clinical guidelines and training is considered to have been a material contributory factor in this regard.” 

Prof Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, who chaired that enquiry, reacted to the attempts by the No campaign to sow confusion as to the findings by telling Morning Ireland, “what held them behind was the fear that they might be prosecuted,” and later added, “The next morning, they were listening to the baby’s heart. They were worried that if they did a termination they might be accused of performing an illegal act by not complying with the Eighth Amendment. So I think it’s important to recognise that. Even on the last day, before she went into septic shock, they were checking the foetal heart rate, whether it was present or not.”

He also answered the claim that the 2013 Act had somehow solved the problem - it cannot as it could not amend the 8th.  He said, “the law as it stands is not enough to save the permanent health of the woman, so I think it’s the right time to consider that and to change and to say ‘Yes’ to this particular referendum.”

Savita’s parents’ video included the line that they “strongly feel that the younger daughters of Ireland should not have the same faith as Savita.”  I feel the same - I’ll be voting Yes for Savita, for her parents, and for those younger daughters of Ireland on May 25th.

Words & photograph: Andrew Flood