Ireland has said an overwhelming yes to a woman’s right to safe abortion — unthinkable in this largely Catholic country even a decade ago. The Irish voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to repeal the eighth amendment to the country’s constitution, which was passed in 1983 and which placed a foetus’s right to life and that of its mother on an even keel, making abortion all but completely illegal. As a result, for over three decades, Irish women were forced to sneak off to England when they decided against giving birth — or when it became medically unviable to carry through a pregnancy. Those who couldn’t lurked in shame and guilt, which had deep roots in its history and culture. Till 1996, the Catholic Church in Ireland ran “Magdalene laundries”, prison-like institutions where unwed mothers and “fallen women” were forced to live and work without pay, separated from their children.
But this vice-grip of patriarchy and religion has loosened in a span of six years, bringing in astonishing change. In that time, Ireland has decriminalised homosexuality and voted to make same-sex marriage legal. A lot of that has to do with the dissolution of the church’s authority. But it was the tragic death of an Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, in 2012 that pushed Ireland to the brink — and to its credit, it stared at the abyss and walked back to the light. Halappanavar, a young dentist who was 17 weeks pregnant, had been admitted to a hospital in Galway with back pain, which ended up into a raging infection and sepsis. Doctors refused her requests for an abortion, in fear of violating the law, leading to her death.
Halappanavar’s needless death ended up roiling Ireland, leading to calls of clearer regulations for doctors and making a deeply religious society confront its guilt in the fate of an innocent. Of the many women who travelled back home to vote in the referendum, a substantial number said they did so for themselves and their bodily autonomy — as well as a means of reparation to Halappanavar. In that sense, the Ireland vote is a ringing note of humanity in a world that is increasingly in thrall to tribal identities and religious fanaticism. That the Irish chose not to forget an immigrant, her life and death; that a brown woman became a symbol of resistance in a European country’s slow march to a more just society is the kind of miracle that the world has ceased to expect. Hope lives — in Ireland’s loud and clear yes.