The death of a 31-year-old Indian woman in Ireland after doctors refused to give her an abortion has sparked protests in her home country of India as well as in Ireland.
Activists in Ireland said that ending Savita Halappanavar’s pregnancy could have saved her life. She died of septicaemia following a miscarriage 17 weeks into her pregnancy. Her family believes that the delay in removing the foetus contributed to the blood poisoning.
Ireland, whose population is 84 percent Roman Catholic, has some of the world’s most restrictive laws on abortion, and critics say that doctors placed faith, as embodied in those laws, above her well being when they decided not to abort Halappanavar’s foetus — despite her repeated requests.
“She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby,” her husband told reporters. “The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’, but they said there was nothing they could do.”
The death of Halappanavar, who was a dentist living and working in Galway in Ireland after she moved from Karnataka, shows that lack of clear abortion laws can put a woman at the mercy of the morals of medical practitioners, who themselves end up deciding whether it is preferable for an unborn child to lose its life, or for the mother to also do so.
Many people around the world welcome abortion laws that give women the right to the procedure, and people in India have protested just this lack of choice that they see in Ireland.
But the right to choose in India, granted by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971, can be put to sinister use. In the world’s second-most populous country, some people have aborted children on learning that they would be girls.
With the introduction of pre-natal sex detection, parents in large parts of the country have opted for sex-selective abortions because they consider girls a liability. Even modern, educated couples prefer boys, whom they see as a source of financial security once the parents age.
In wealthy states such as Punjab, there are only 851 girls for every 1,000 boys in the zero to six age group in urban areas.
Widespread sex-selective abortion has resulted in “wife-sharing,” in which decades of aborting female foetuses has led to such a drastic decline in female population that one woman is sexually “shared” by all the men in a family. Even though such exploitation of women is illegal in India, it has become acceptable in many parts of Haryana and Punjab.
Several Indian politicians as well as India’s ambassador to Ireland have expressed outrage over the death of Halappanavar, both because she was an Indian and that she was made a victim of controversial laws and religious beliefs.
Brinda Karat, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has called it a “culpable crime” and other local politicians have demanded a swift and transparent probe into the case.
While protests both in India and abroad have forced the Irish government to reconsider its policy on abortion, it has become clear that neither the right to an abortion or a law making it hard or forbidding it will give women in many countries control over their bodies and their lives.