Over 100 people protested outside London’s Irish embassy on Wednesday following the tragic death of a pregnant woman who was denied an abortion in an Irish hospital.
“I am absolutely shocked but not surprised by this news,” said Christine Quigley, vice-chair of the Labour Party Irish Society. “It is an absolute travesty that the Irish government has failed to legislate on abortion for nearly 20 years and we all knew that it was only a matter of time until we would see a case like this.”
She added: “As an Irish woman living in Britain it is just bizarre to me that in a so-called first world country we actually have worse human rights than women do in Iran.”
John Carroll, originally from Cork, came to the vigil from Oxford. He said: “I have been completely shocked by this news. I don’t know where to begin, but this is one of those things where Irish people tend to casually forget about the issue until a new problem comes up.”
Speeches were given at the vigil by activists including Anne Quesney from Abortion Support Network, a charity that supports hundreds of Irish women who have abortions in Britain each year.
Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year old dentist, died of septicaemia in University Hospital Galway while suffering a miscarriage of her 17 week pregnancy. Her husband claims that despite being diagnosed with a miscarriage when she came to the hospital with back pain, Mrs Halappanavar was denied a termination several times.
Hospital staff were reported as having told her: “This is a Catholic country.” The termination was denied, Praveen Halappanavar says, because the foetus still had a heartbeat.
He added that Mrs Halappanavar spent two and a half days “in agony” before the foetal heartbeat stopped and Mrs Halappanavar was taken into theatre, where the dead foetus was removed. After the procedure, Mr Halappanavar says that he spoke to his wife for the final time.
Over the next three days, Mrs Halappanavar was moved to the high dependency unit and then to the intensive care unit. She died of septicaemia on Sunday October 28.
The story, which broke yesterday, has sparked fierce debate both in Ireland and abroad about Ireland’s abortion law.
Under the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution passed by referendum in 1983, an embryo is an Irish citizen with the same right to life as a pregnant woman.
The constitutional illegality of abortion in Ireland persists despite a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that termination was legal in the case that the pregnant woman’s life is at risk. No Irish Government has attempted to transform the ruling into legislation.
Natalie Bennett, leader of Britain’s Green Party, spoke to the Irish Post at last night’s vigil. She said: “This story has stuck me very deeply and very personally. This is a woman who came to Ireland to provide medical services, so while going through this horrific experience that ended in her death, she knew what was happening to her. The fact is that it is a travesty that a woman who was using her professional skills for the benefit of people in Ireland was utterly let down by the Irish medical system, by Irish law and by Irish society.”
“It is really important that individual doctors are not scapegoated in this situation. That would be inappropriate,” she added. “It is very clear that the legal environment created a situation that presents risks both to pregnant women in Ireland and to doctors.”
Several hundred people also attended a protest outside the Dail Eireann last night.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that the Government would wait until Health Minister James Reilly received the reports from the hospital and the Health Service Executive before taking further action.
A larger protest will take place at the Irish Embassy in London on Saturday from 4pm.