As the Supreme Court looks poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights activists are looking to another country, Ireland, whose recent history offers both hope for change and a dire warning for a post-Roe future.
In 1983, Ireland passed the Eighth Amendment, which effectively banned abortion by adding a provision to the Irish constitution recognizing “the right to life of the unborn.” That amendment remained in place until 2018, when it was repealed following a national campaign that represented the culmination of a decades-long abortion rights movement.
The passage of the Eighth Amendment was not particularly surprising in a predominantly Catholic country that had long criminalized abortion and had for centuries allowed the operation of “Magdalene Laundries” — prison-like asylums for so-called “fallen women” who were accused of having sex outside of marriage.
Perhaps more surprising was the 21st century shift in attitudes that laid the groundwork for the “Repeal the Eighth” campaign. The movement for abortion rights was part of a broader progressive sea change in the country. Just three years years earlier, Ireland had voted overwhelmingly to legalize same-sex marriage, and in 2017, it elected Leo Varadkar, its first openly-gay Taoiseach (the Irish equivalent of the Prime Minister).
Despite the turning political tides, repeal may not have succeeded but for a horrific tragedy that shocked the country into action. In 2012, Dr. Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who had moved to Ireland from India, was 17 weeks pregnant when she went to the hospital complaining of back pain. The doctors said that she had suffered a miscarriage. Despite being told that her fetus would not survive, she was denied an abortion because, the hospital staff told her, Ireland “is a Catholic country.” After being refused an abortion several more times, she waited until the heartbeat stopped. By that point, she had developed sepsis, a kind of blood poisoning. She died of the infection.
Dr. Halappanavar had been living in Galway with her husband, an engineer. Her death sparked immediate outcry, particularly from the community of Indian immigrants living in Ireland. That outcry soon spread throughout the country. In the weeks after her death, thousands rallied outside the Irish parliament. There were vigils and marches. And as Dr. Halappanavar became a household name, she also became synonymous with the cause of abortion rights.
One of the most prominent posters for the repeal campaign featured Dr. Halappanavar’s face in front of a red background with the words: “Savita Matters. Women Matter. Vote YES.”
Days before the referendum vote, Sky News interviewed Dr. Halappanavar’s parents. Her mother said she had “no tears left to cry” over her daughter’s death, and explicitly called for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Her father said, “We want [the voters] to see Savita’s fate, what happened to Savita. You are also having daughters. You must know that one should not have the same fate as Savita.” He added, “We are asking for abortion to be carried out. They have to change their laws. That was the fight, the demand from day one and now that the referendum is going on, they need to vote yes.”
Those calls were heeded, as Ireland supported the repeal with nearly 67% of the vote. The parliament then quickly passed a new law allowing abortions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, and in limited circumstances after 12 weeks. (While reproductive rights activists hailed the law as a significant measure of progress, they have argued that the 12-week restriction is too stringent, and that the law contains other limitations, like excessive waiting periods.)
The case of Dr. Halappanavar has been highlighted on social media in the days following the Supreme Court’s leaked opinion overturning Roe. Jo Kaur, a civil rights lawyer and founder of a non-profit advocating for research on fetal genetic diseases, tweeted, “On nights like this I can’t help but think of Savita Halappanavar, a beautiful 31 year-old dentist who died at 17 weeks pregnant after being denied an abortion in Ireland because it was illegal then. She died of sepsis bc they wouldn’t abort. How many Savitas will die in the US?”
Dr. Jennifer Cassidy, a scholar of diplomacy at Oxford University, tweeted, “As Roe v Wade trends. The people of Ireland deeply remember Savita Halappanavar. If the people of the United States have not heard this story, please read.”
Dr. Halappanavar’s death offers a harrowing lesson, but the activism that followed it — and Ireland’s staggering shift on abortion — also offers a playbook for political organizing. The American political system, however, does not have an equivalent to Ireland’s direct national referendum process. Even if a majority of Americans support abortion rights (a recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that 54% of Americans believe that Roe should be upheld) the issue would still fall to a divided Congress, or to individual states.
What are your reactions to the likelihood of post-Roe America? Are there other stories around the importance of abortion access that you’d like to share? Write to us with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.