Last week, the Irish people issued their landmark vote on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the country’s constitution, which bans abortion under almost all circumstances.
The result was a landslide victory for yes campaigners, with nearly all constituencies across Ireland voting in favor of repealing the law.
An abortion is a routine and common healthcare service, with one in four pregnancies worldwide ending this way. Despite this, there is huge silence in public conversations around abortion and the stories of women and girls who have one.
Just take the case of Savita Halappanavar, who sought emergency health care at University Hospital Galway when pregnant with her first child in 2012. She was told she was going to have a miscarriage, and that there was a risk of infection. Doctors informed Halappanavar and her family that because of the law they couldn’t intervene until her life was at risk, and refused her request for a termination. As a consequence of the denial of emergency health care, Savita died.
“She wanted to live, have babies … I still can’t believe she’s not with us. We just can’t believe that in the 21st century, something like this would happen.”
The inquiry into her death found that a contributing factor was Ireland’s restrictive constitutional position on abortion. The independent chair of the inquiry, Sabaratnam Arulkumaran confirmed to an Irish parliamentary committee in October 2017 that, were it not for the legal position, she would have been given a termination.
He added: “We would never have heard of her and she would be alive today.”
Understandably, people were outraged by the entirely preventable nature of Savita’s tragic and untimely death. Her story soon entered the hearts of the Irish public as her family bravely shared her story, helping to pave the way for Ireland’s historic vote.
There were marches on parliament, torrents of social media outrage, and perhaps most importantly, a long overdue reckoning in the Irish media where other women came forward to share their experiences at the hands of this cruel and antiquated system.
Tara Flynn, an Irish actress, comedian and writer, was one of the first women to break the silence on sharing abortion stories publicly, when she courageously shared her story at an event for Amnesty International’s global sexual and reproductive rights campaign, “My Body, My Rights,” in 2015.
These conversations had an undoubted impact on the outcome of the vote. The exit polls on the night of the referendum showed that personal stories of women in the media and the experiences of people they knew were the biggest influencing factors on how people voted.
These cases shine a spotlight on women weighing the untenable risks and problems associated with a restrictive law and social stigma around abortion, which compels them to travel abroad for vital healthcare, illegally purchase abortion medication online and use it without proper medical supervision, or resort to other forms of unsafe abortion.
The general trend is for countries around the world to reform their laws and remove administrative and practical barriers to make safe abortion more accessible. However, there are states that maintain discriminatory and dangerous legal frameworks, and where again, it has taken the courage and desperation of individual women to ignite a public debate about abortion.
In El Salvador the cases of Maria Teresa Rivera and Teodora del Carmen Vásquez have propelled the country into the spotlight. Both women were unjustly imprisoned in El Salvador after suffering pregnancy complications. The country is among a handful of nations that maintain an outright ban on abortion, and the stigma around abortion is so extreme that women who suffer miscarriages are immediately placed under suspicion.
Rivera was originally sentenced to 40 years in prison. She was released and is now in Sweden where she was granted asylum from persecution at the hands of the draconian laws on abortion. She now campaigns against the criminalization of abortion and sent a moving solidarity message to the women of Ireland, urging the population to vote”yes” to reforming the constitution.
With each woman who speaks out and seeks justice, others are freed to do the same. They have captured the public’s imagination and reminded us all of the unsustainable and dangerous circumstances around abortion which many still unnecessarily face, and which must be stopped.
As the overwhelmingly positive results from Ireland’s referendum show, things will never be the same again thanks to these women.
Due to their sacrifices, the shame around abortion has been shifted to where it truly belongs: with the state for denying access to safe abortion.