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People gathered outside the GPO in Dublin to rememeber the death of Savita Halappanavar. Sam Boal
VOICES

Ruth Coppinger Savita 10 years on - why we need a permanent memorial

Maternity care must change forever in this country so we never see another case like Savita’s, writes Coppinger.

LAST UPDATE | Oct 14th 2022, 9:08 AM

THIS MONTH MARKS the 10th anniversary of the tragic, untimely death of Savita Halappanavar.

On 28 October 2012, Savita died from sepsis in a Galway hospital after asking several times and being refused an abortion.

The needless death of a vivacious 31-year-old woman under Ireland’s abortion ban might have remained solely a catastrophe for Savita’s family and friends.

But thanks to her husband speaking out, it became public and caused outrage, igniting a new abortion rights movement and, after a five-year campaign, the conceding of a referendum to repeal the Eighth amendment.

The change that followed

The impact of Savita’s death and the change it led to cannot be overstated. I believe on this 10th anniversary Ireland should commit to creating a permanent memorial to Savita, to commemorate her and all those harmed by the Eighth Amendment – and as a permanent reminder that this State must never again allow religious views to predominate over human rights.

The place of Savita in the public consciousness in Ireland was seen in the emotional reaction to an unofficial mural of her around the time of the referendum and in the hundreds of notes left there.

Savita was a migrant to Ireland and a woman of colour. Her memorial would also send a powerful global message. With abortion rights overturned in the USA and women’s and trans rights being rapidly dismantled, it is unfortunately inevitable that tragedies like the death of Savita can now happen in the most ‘developed’ country in the world.

Much to do

I have raised the idea of a permanent memorial with a number of people who have enthusiastically supported it. A letter is being circulated for signature by Dublin City Council, the local authority of the capital, as well as by the Ministers for the Arts and for Health, calling on them to commission a statue or memorial.

An Organising Committee has been established to hold a march in Dublin on October 29th to commemorate Savita and it also supports the idea of a memorial. The march and a memorial would be powerful gestures giving meaning to the vow we made following her death— ‘Never Again’.

The issues highlighted by Savita’s unnecessary death are still pressing. While Repeal and the subsequent abortion law has been a seminal achievement, providing over 6,000 people annually with the right to have abortions in our own country, limits in both the law and access are denying people the possibility of exercising that right.

The figures still show that women from Ireland are travelling for abortions – 375 pregnant people had to travel to England and Wales in 2019, including some with medical diagnoses. Only one in 10 GPs is providing abortion services and only 11 of 19 maternity hospitals. Some counties have no services at all.

Church and State

Most worryingly in the context of Savita’s death, maintaining abortion as a criminal offence is having a chilling effect on doctors.

Under the new law, there were only 24 abortions each year on grounds of risk to life/health — no change on the pre-Repeal legislation. With continuing church involvement in maternity hospitals, there is no guarantee that another tragic case like Savita’s cannot happen.

This is especially so given the continued abysmal failure to in any way separate church and state in Ireland. The debacle of the National Maternity Hospital — where the State pays the cost of a hospital on land owned and leased by the church and a religious order maintains representation on the Board— shows that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens are either unwilling or unable to stand up to the Catholic Church.

Subsequent polls have shown that the majority of people in Ireland do not want a religious veto in healthcare and particularly so over the health of women or trans people.

The proposed new NMH would be the first maternity hospital established since Savita’s death and should be secular in every respect. Indeed, a new maternity hospital should recognise and honour her.

For all the reasons outlined, we should commemorate Savita Halappanavar. Savita’s family made an active and impassioned intervention in the repeal referendum, calling on Irish people to vote yes as the finest way to honour her memory. We have done that.

Now, 10 years on from her death, we should commit to a permanent memorial that respectfully remembers her life and says ‘Never Again’ — that anyone who is pregnant and asks for an abortion can get one in a timely fashion without barriers or interference from church or state.

Ruth Coppinger is a former TD for Dublin West, and member of the Organising Committee for Savita 10 Years On march.

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