“AT LAST, we have got justice,” said Andanappa Yalagi, 72, as he waited on Saturday afternoon for news that his daughter’s death had not been in vain — that Ireland had finally voted to repeal the eight amendment to its Constitution, which made nearly all kinds of abortion illegal.
In October 2012, that law had cost Yalagi’s daughter her life. Savita Halappanavar had died of sepsis at a hospital in Galway, having being repeatedly denied medical permission to abort her 17-week foetus because doctors were loathe to carry out an abortion when the foetal heartbeat could be heard. She was 31.
Nearly six years later, in the run-up to a historic referendum in Ireland to make abortion legal, the young Indian woman became the face of the “Yes” campaign, her smiling pictures turning up in placards, short films and public art. “Finally, I feel Ireland is paying tribute to her departed soul. Her death has not been in vain. I am proud of my daughter,” said Yalagi, speaking to The Sunday Express over the phone from his residence in Belgaum.
In a video message recorded 10 days ago, Yalagi had appealed to the Irish people to remember his daughter when they vote.
“All I want is that other families do not suffer what we did,” he said. At a mural dedicated to her memory in Dublin, which sprung up hours before the vote, women and men left flowers and messages for Halappanavar. One of them read: “Sorry, we were too late for you. But we are here now. We didn’t forget you.”
“Every single day, we remember her. What can we do?” said Yalagi, as he spoke of his “bold, dynamic and heroic” daughter, slipping sometimes into the present tense. Halappanavar grew up in Belgaum, studying to become a dentist. She moved to Ireland in 2008, after she married Praveen Halappanavar, who lived and worked in Galway and who she had met on an online matrimonial site. “She was very happy in Ireland. She had found many friends. She was a very good dancer and she took classes for children there,” said Yalagi.
Halappanavar was also re-training herself to resume her career as a dentist, for which she sat for the Irish Dental Council Exams.
In 2012, Yalagi, a retired engineer with Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited, and his wife Akkamahadevi travelled to Ireland to visit their daughter, who was pregnant. They found her settled into a happy marital life, and integrated into a community. Soon after the ceremony performed to initiate a child in the mother’s womb into the Lingayat religion, Halappanavar complained of back pain.
“My 90-day visa was about to expire. So I had to leave. I visited Savita in the hospital. She told me not to worry, that she would be well soon. The doctors and the nurse also reassured us that we had nothing to worry about. I took my daughter’s permission and left for Bangalore. Four days later, she was no more,” Yalagi said.
What makes the death difficult to accept for the family is that Halappanavar could have lived. “If I had known that Ireland had these restrictions, I would have brought her back. If the 8th amendment had been repealed earlier, she would have been with us,” he said.
The inquiry report into her death faulted the doctors for not recognising the gravity of Halappanavar’s spreading sepsis and said that that might have been due “to the way the law was interpreted in dealing with the case or the lack of appreciation of the increasing risk to the mother”. It also “strongly advised the clinical professional community, health and social care regulators… to consider the law, including any necessary constitutional change” to manage such emergencies.
Over the years, there have been many challenges to Ireland’s conservative stance on abortion — which, in effect, forces women to travel to the UK for legal and safe abortion. Halappanavar’s death and the outcry it followed was a tipping point, leading to calls from within the medical fraternity for clearer guidelines.
As the “Yes” campaign gathered pace this year, Yalagi kept in touch with journalists and his daughter’s friends in Ireland. “Her photos have been on Dublin’s streets for the last three months to remind people,” he said.
The child who once surprised him with her ace debating skills; the loving daughter who would call her parents every single day; the vivacious dancer who was at the centre of their lives — the memories, says Yalagi, are too numerous to be singled out. “I wish that when Ireland enacts a new act to replace this one, it should be named after Savita,” he said.