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Why the result of the referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland is the right one

By Nina Steele 

Women choosing not to have childrenOn October 28, 2012, a young woman named Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital after being denied an abortion even though she was having a miscarriage. The law against abortion meant that doctors wouldn’t terminate the pregnancy even when she was diagnosed with an infection which later developed into septic shock. Rightly, her death caused an uproar across Ireland with campaigners demanding a change in the law. Her death was a catalyst for the referendum on abortion, which returned a yes result on May 25 of this year, thus ending the ban on abortion in Ireland which had been in place since 1861.

What made the ban on abortion in Ireland so contentious, was an amendment made to the constitution in 1983 (the result of a previous referendum), which gave equal right to life to both a mother and her unborn child. That in effect made it illegal to have an abortion under any circumstances, including rape, incest or foetal abnormality.

After the death of Savita Halappanavar, the law was changed to allow abortion in cases where a woman’s life is at risk. That law came into effect in 2013. The 2018 referendum goes much further by allowing abortion without restrictions up to 12 weeks. Beyond 12 weeks, a woman can still have an abortion if her life is deemed at risk or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

As a highly divisive issue, the referendum on abortion was always going to be a hard-fought one. The historic nature of the vote along with predictions by pollsters of the result likely to be very close, prompted some Irish citizens abroad to make the journey back to Ireland to cast their votes. Those familiar with social media were using the hashtag #hometovote to that effect.

In the end, even Ireland, a catholic nation, could not escape the tide of change. The win for the yes vote means that women will no longer have to travel to the UK to have an abortion, with an estimated 168,703 having done so, between 1980 and 2016.

As for Savita’s relatives, even though the yes result changes nothing to the fact that they have lost a loved one, that she hasn’t died in vain, may, one hopes, give them some comfort. In a phone interview her father gave the Guardian newspaper in the run-up to the referendum, he said: “I hope the people of Ireland remember my daughter Savita on the day of the referendum, and that what happened to her won’t happen to any other family”. Thankfully, his wishes have come to pass.

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