White women’s mascot: Dr Savita Halappanavar and the racial politics of abortion rights

Dr Savita Halappanavar (1981–2012)

[to mark Dr Halappanavar’s sixth death anniversary]

Six years ago, Dr Savita Halappanavar, herself a medical professional living and working in the Irish Republic, was denied an abortion. To quote the New York Times:

…17 weeks pregnant, Dr. Halappanavar went the hospital with back pain on Oct. 21 and doctors said she was having a miscarriage… Dr. Halappanavar was told that her fetus would not survive — but that she could not be given an abortion, her husband said. Ireland, she was told, is “a Catholic country,” and it would be illegal to terminate the pregnancy while the fetus still had a heartbeat, her husband said.

After being repeatedly refused an abortion, she waited days until the heartbeat stopped. The contents of her womb were removed on Oct. 27. By then she had an infection, and she died of septicemia the following day.

Subsequently, Dr Halappanavar’s name and portrait became important symbols of the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution. In the run-up to the 2018 #Repealthe8th referendum, Dr Halappanavar’s tragic and untimely death was frequently evoked as a case for the absolute necessity of repealing the 8th amendment, and moving towards inclusive and modern abortion rights legislation.

The fact that Dr Halappanavar became a symbol of the Irish abortion rights movement is often interpreted as an example of Irish multiculturalism, or, of Ireland as a land that takes pride in multiculturalism. This is a deeply flawed assumption at multiple levels.

In reality, the abortion rights campaign found in the late Dr Halappanavar’s image a highly marketable and promising mascot.

A well-educated professional with a light skin tone [which was photoshopped even lighter in much of the repealthe8th promotional material], the cis white women spearheading the abortion rights movement found in Dr Halappanavar a powerful marketing strategy.

The deployment of her tragedy as an eye-opener on the vital importance of abortion rights seldom raised the issue that Dr Halappanavar was a migrant woman, and a foreign national living in Ireland.

At this point, it is worth reiterating that some 40% of maternal deaths in Ireland are migrant and ethnic minority women, despite migrants making up only 17% of the population.

The healthcare systems in the island of Ireland are far from friendly to [cis&trans] migrant women, especially to women of colour from the global South, to women of colour whose first language may not be English, and to migrant women of colour with less social capital and who are financially under privileged. Out of that high percentage of maternal deaths, it is only the name of Dr Halappanavar that has made it to public memory.

What about many women who may have suffered even worse, who would not have had the agency, the recognition, and the standing of Dr Halappanavar, as a highly qualified professional living and working in Ireland? What can we say about black women, or women with darker skin who are in direct provision and therefore in situations of immigration limbos, precariousness and poverty?

What about the fact that Ireland’s electoral laws are such that any form of civic agency is categorically denied to migrant women who are not Irish citizens? The large majority of migrant women of colour who run the risk of falling into the aforementioned 40%, for instance, did not have a vote at the #repealthe8th referendum held earlier this year.

It is therefore absolutely crucial to drive home the fact that ‘remembering Dr Halappanavar’ is extremely inadequate, if not highly problematic, if that remembrance does not highlight the fact that she was a migrant woman, a woman of colour, and a non-Irish citizen at the time of her demise [or to be more accurate, cold-blooded murder, by the misogynistic and white supremacist Irish healthcare system].

It is also equally important to ask, while remembering Dr Halappanavar, as to why her name became symbolic of the Irish abortion rights campaign (which, apart from the work done by some organisations that focus on migrant women and women in direct provision), is very much a white feminist campaign run by cis and mostly cis-het white women who focus exclusively on their interests [even white trans men and nonbinary people are most often categorically erased from their campaigning, language and discourses, let alone non-cis-hetero-normative people of colour from migrant backgrounds…].

May the name of Dr Halappanavar last in Irish public memory, and may her soul rest in power.