When she moved to Ireland from India in 2008 I didn’t know her name. When she was admitted to hospital in Galway, on October 21 2012, I didn’t know her name. When she died of sepsis 7 days later I didn’t know her name.
October 28 2022 marked the 10 year anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar. At a commemoration march through central Dublin last month – the call over a loudspeaker was “say her name”. The response echoed on the city streets – “Savita”.
I wish I didn’t know her name.
I learned Savita’s name in mid-November 2012 when her story became news. Her body had already been repatriated to India. The Indian community in Galway, shocked and grappling with the potential role that Irish legislation had played in her death, contacted the media.
Kitty Holland of The Irish Times broke the story on November 14 2012. It was a watershed – there was an Ireland before we learned of Savita’s death – and there was another Ireland afterwards.
For many abortion was an issue of grand morals and religious teachings, viewed at a level of abstraction
On the march to commemorate Savita I felt conflicted. Savita’s story changed Ireland. Her image, replicated on posters at the event, is well known. I live close to the site where a mural of her was once painted. Every time I looked at her image I was pulled somewhere else. I thought about how often women’s personal stories are traded to access adequate care.
The news story around Savita’s death focused on whether her life would have been saved by the termination she requested. In 2012 abortion legislation was in a legal limbo in Ireland. Over the two decades between the X case and Savita’s death, four referendums were put to the Irish public on abortion and a number of reports were commissioned.
The same week that Savita’s story broke, then Minister for Health, James Reilly, received the latest report – from a Government appointed expert group assembled after a case against Ireland at The European Court of Human Rights – A, B and C v Ireland.
Though there was continued pressure on Ireland to act on abortion legislation from the European Court of Human Rights, and from a segment of the population active on the issue, in the main it was relegated to campaigners and those with personal experience of abortion. The results of a 2002 constitutional referendum, on a tightening of the ban on abortion including the removal of suicide as a grounds for abortion, was hair thin – with 50.42 per cent against the ban tightening and 49.58 per cent in favour.
For many abortion was an issue of grand morals and religious teachings, viewed at a level of abstraction. Those with direct experience of abortion were often silenced by the historic stigma connected to the issue. The past legislative cases had involved only initials – X, A, B, C – which had a certain distancing effect.
Against this backdrop, Savita’s story was a defining moment with political effects which cannot be overstated. It took the issue of abortion from abstraction and grounded it in the practical reality of a woman with whom the public empathised. Savita’s death moved people into action – it also moved a segment of the Irish public on their views surrounding abortion.
The need for personal storytelling is a feature of women’s health in Ireland
The public reaction was immediate. After the news broke, vigils were held around the country. That was followed by protests and a big grassroots organising effort culminating in the referendum in 2018.
Savita’s anniversary was an opportunity to highlight the abortion access issues which remain in Ireland despite the legislative change. In the public consciousness abortion access is now generally considered a done deal. The issue once again is an abstraction – until it isn’t.
Not long ago a friend told me about her difficulties in accessing an abortion under the new regime. It’s a story that’s upsetting. It’s a story in which she wasn’t cared for in the way she’d hoped to be. It’s a story in which some of the phrases uttered to her echo the past we’ve supposedly escaped. But it’s also a personal story about a woman’s private life.
The need for personal storytelling is a feature of women’s health in Ireland. It’s evident in the current campaign for paid menopause leave. It’s evident in the growing awareness of the inadequate supports for the estimated 1 in 10 women with endometriosis, , where patients often find more support and information in the media rather than in healthcare settings. Instead of expecting healthcare women often have to campaign for healthcare.
On the march to commemorate Savita, I looked at her face. I thought about the burden her story carried – and where it brought us. I wondered how we could move towards remembering her – and let her rest.
Without Savita, without her personal story, it’s difficult to say where Ireland would now be.
Without Ireland it’s difficult to think about where Savita would now be. I wish that she was there.
I wish I didn’t know her name.
Gráinne Conroy is a writer based in Dublin with a focus on womanhood, Ireland and identity.