A demonstration took place in Dublin on Saturday 29th October, commemorating the 10 year anniversary of Savita Halappanavar's death.
Savita, a pregnant Indian woman, died of sepsis in Galway University Hospital, having been denied an abortion that would have saved her life. Her death served as a catalyst for the movement that ultimately led to the repeal of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, thus upending one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in Europe.
Savita's tragic death made global headlines, with the 31 year old unwillingly becoming the centre of a controversy that shocked the conscience of a generation. The demonstration on Saturday highlighted the progress made by the reproductive justice movement in post-8th Amendment Ireland, but also called for the removal of persistent legal and socioeconomic barriers that continue to impede access to termination services.
Marching from the Garden of Remembrance, via O'Connell Street and Temple Bar, and terminating with a rally at City Hall on Dame Street, the event included speakers from ROSA, a Socialist Feminist Organisation, Cora Martin, Vice-Chair of Unite the Union, Hasti Yavari, Kurdish-Iranian feminist activist and PhD candidate at UCC, Ruth Coppinger, former Socialist Party TD, Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich, Welfare Officer of UCDSU, Dr Peter Boylan, former master of the National Maternity Hospital, and Ailbhe Smyth, a former UCD academic and notable veteran activist.
The speakers highlighted the legislative obstacles that continue to hamper bodily autonomy. In her speech, Coppinger drew parallels with the recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in the United States, referring to the US Supreme Court as: “an unelected, unaccountable cabal of misogynists.” Coppinger spoke at length about global attacks on reproductive rights, including a near-total abortion ban in Poland, which she claims has resulted in 6 women's deaths: “There have been 6 Savitas in Poland since the ban was introduced, and that's in an EU state. Forced pregnancy, forced childbirth, is being introduced in an EU state, and that's not good enough.”
There are still several hundred people travelling every year because they didn't implement what the Citizens Assembly recommended. They implemented what the politicians wanted.
Coppinger argued that Savita's death was a 'spark' for the movement that would ultimately lead to the overturning of a “medieval, dangerous, misogynistic, and sectarian law”, arguing that Savita's life was needlessly sacrificed as a result of the 8th Amendment.
Coppinger provided a brief comment to The University Observer after the rally had concluded, arguing: “We won a very important law. I mean, 6,000 people are having abortions in their own country because of the movement that we fought. Young people, women, working-class people, LGBT people. But, there are still several hundred people travelling every year because they didn't implement what the Citizens Assembly recommended. They implemented what the politicians wanted.”
She proceeded to call for greater progress to be made in the struggle for reproductive rights, saying: “Bodily autonomy is under attack. You only have to look at the U.S, where unbelievably after 50 years abortion rights have been wiped out. And that's a wake up call to everybody here: rights can be won, rights can be taken away. (...) We're also here to show solidarity with women and LGBT people who are fighting for (...) freedom all around the world (particularly as we mentioned), in Iran.”
Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich from the SU also spoke to us, offering her perspective on the situation regarding reproductive healthcare in Ireland, saying: “While we have had concessions, while we have had changes, it hasn't been enough. And it's not enough for students. The 12 week limit, the 3 day waiting period, all of these are barriers to access [abortion]. There is no hospital in Donegal that provides abortion services, or in Cavan or Monaghan. (...) Whole sections of students, students who might not be able to take time off work, who might not be able to drive, who might rely on public transport for travel, who might not have access to their own G.P while they're at college, have to struggle and fight and worry (...) about two lines on a pregnancy test.”
While we have had concessions, while we have had changes, it hasn't been enough. And it's not enough for students. The 12 week limit, the 3 day waiting period, all of these are barriers
Nic Fhionnlaoich proceeded to highlight the SU's stance on reproductive health issues, arguing that the Union was a “stalwart protector of the right to choose.” She referred to the SU's history of political activism in this area, including illegally distributing condoms in the 70's, and going to Court in the 90's. “Our members need that care.”
“The abortion review is coming up, and it's really important that we keep that pressure on our TD's. (...) After the Citizens Assembly, (...) their little plan to fob people off and restrict abortion failed, because the recommendations were far more liberal than they expected. And they still haven't implemented all those recommendations. That's not good enough.”
When pressed on what the SU was doing to maintain pressure to implement the recommendations of the Assembly, Nic Fhionnlaoich responded: “Well we're here today, alongside trade unions, alongside activist groups, and, after this march it's not over. We will continue to be lobbying, continuing haranguing TD's, continuing to raise awareness, and bring students along in the fight for abortion services.”
We won a really important victory in 2018 with the Repeal movement, but with the legislation today you actually couldn't rule out that a similar death could happen.
Harper, a member of ROSA who participated in the event, also offered her perspective. She said: “This was a march commemorating Savita, (...) we won a really important victory in 2018 with the Repeal movement, but with the legislation today you actually couldn't rule out that a similar death could happen, even though we won a really important victory. (...) Obviously, the fact that we have legal, free abortion up to 12 weeks is very important. But for instance, there's the 3 day waiting period, (...) which is just insulting to the decision-making capabilities of people who are able to get pregnant. After 12 weeks it's technically still criminalised.”
Harper discussed how these legal restrictions continue to obstruct access to abortion services even after the 8th Amendment has been repealed, and discussed a range of other issues, such as the conscientious objection clause that enables doctors to opt-out of providing such services. She also drew a parallel between the barriers obstructing access to abortion, and the “dismal lack” of access to gender affirming healthcare available for transgender people in the state, arguing that this is another example of an attempt at policing bodily autonomy.
The March played host to a number of speeches by activists, union leaders, and feminists, all of whom celebrated the progress made over the course of the previous decade, but called for the removal of remaining barriers that continue to restrict access to abortion services. As the legislative review looms ahead, ROSA, UCDSU, Unite the Union, and other sectors of civil society are expected to continue agitating and lobbying for more expansive access to reproductive healthcare.