"Never again! Never again! Never again...." The crowd were angry. Ireland was and still is angry. On the evening of Wednesday 14 November I was one of 2000 who stood angrily at the gates of Leinster House and sat down upon Kildare Street to show that we would not be moved, less than a 24 hours since the Savita story broke. The smiling face of a beautiful Indian woman has come to signify Irish women's long-standing struggle to claim autonomy of their own bodies. 13 November was the beginning of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights and Savita should have been celebrating with her friends and family but instead, candlelit vigils were being held to mark her death.
On Saturday people took to the streets in protest, wrapped tightly in scarves and coats to stave off the harsh November air. Clad not in white, the colour of Hindu mourning but funereal black and other muted colours of Irish winter coats, a sombre mood drifted through the city centre. I arrived late, slipping straight into the front when the march moved off Parnell Square and began to make its way down O'Connell Street, the main thoroughfare of Dublin city centre, at 4.20pm. I couldn't gauge the number of people in attendance but the night before said on Twitter that the event invite on Facebook had over 7,500 members and may possibly pass 10,000. In actuality, the final count was reported as closer to 20,000. Banners were hoisted along with placards, proclaiming slogans; Get Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries; I Have A Heartbeat Too; some were complicated assertions against the patriarchy and misogyny of Catholicism, calling for the separation of Church and State; others were simple: SHAME. Shame was felt deeply by us all, shame that our government's cowardice and professional reticence have made a backward country despite a forward-thinking populace. Usually a politically apathetic nation, thousands upon thousands, raised-fist activists, pensioners with walking sticks, passers-by with shopping bags and parents with buggies, all walks of life, all ages, all with a heart and united in their fury and grief, turned out to march from the Garden of Remembrance to the Dáil, seat of the Irish Government, to make their presence known, their voices heard, their intentions clear: Never Again. The draconian laws of the Irish state and the dogma of the Catholic Church have been repeatedly challenged to no avail and now another woman has died, and it has become clear that enough is enough.
As the crowd set off on the mile-long march it began to rain, as if Dublin itself were weeping at the sight of such sadness on its streets. The marchers were not to be deterred and umbrellas were opened, while those without pulled woolly scarves from their necks to cover their heads, creating another link in the strengthened sense of solidarity these Irish marchers were sharing with Indian mourners. Savita had a life here, was part of the community in Galway, and our country failed her when she placed her trust in the health service. The same health service which, under the yoke of the law, is used by the anti-abortion lobby to claim that Ireland is the safest country in the world to have a baby. It is not a safe country to be pregnant. Those campaigners call themselves Pro-Life but cannot see that legislation which saves mothers saves lives - I call them the anti-choice brigade, the ones for whom personal belief is not enough and only widespread control will do. A meagre few of those dissenters were visible on the sidelines on Saturday too; all of them old and full of hatred, spewing vile rubbish as we passed peacefully, screaming 'murderers!' and wielding their weapons of oppression, disinformation and misleading bigotry.
We were marching for Savita because her death could not go ignored. Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year-old expectant mother, who moved to Ireland in 2008 with her husband Praveen and worked as a dentist, died after several days in agony, her pleas for help ignored by doctors. She was 17 weeks pregnant on 21 October when excruciating back pain led her to seek help at University College Hospital in Galway, insisting that something was wrong. The obstetricians, aware of the risk of infection, did nothing until the signs of fever became too profound to ignore. She was left in acute physical pain to come to terms with the mental anguish that her pregnancy was not viable, but it was clear that she was full of life and begged for the miscarriage to be induced. Medical journal guidelines in the case of intrauterine infection are very clear: antibitotics alone are not enough and abortion is absolutely necessary. Instead she was told that because a foetal heartbeat could be detected, inducement was not possible as Ireland was "a Catholic country". She was a Hindu and her request was perfectly in line with the law that states abortion may be performed in the event of a substantial risk to a mother's life. It seems impossible that doctors did not think that the risk of infection was grave, but rather, the risks of stepping beyond the blurred boundaries of Irish law were too great to risk their own professional careers and the cost of a woman's life was less. Infection was left to take hold until the baby's heartbeat stopped, four days after her cervix had opened. It was too late and Savita died of septicemia and e-coli a week after her miscarriage began.
The injustice of it all is that in a country where abortion is illegal, Savita's case was one instance where the law was on her side. The people of Ireland are bound to the 1983 Eighth Amendment of the Constitution: "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right". But in the X Case of 1992, the result of a suicidal 14 year-old girl's attempts to travel to the UK to obtain an abortion after being raped by a neighbour, the Supreme Court established the right to an abortion if a woman's life was at risk. Despite a lapse of twenty years since the ruling, seven successive governments have failed to implement legislation for the X Case that would provide patients and doctors with the legal clarity to properly assess a woman's right to an abortion. The anger that Ireland feels over Savita's death right now is that if not for the governments' failure to act, doctors could have saved her life, and she would have a future where she and her husband could plan another child.
We were marching for X, for legislation, for women, for Ireland and for progress. Saturday was the fourth time this year I marched the streets of the capital calling for change, for legislation to be implemented, for the tyranny of Catholicism to loosen its grip from the wombs of my sisters. I had no gloves and couldn't feel my fingers but held up a placard with 'Women's Rights Now' emblazoned. I walked mostly in silence, thinking of the nameless who have died after similar barbarous ordeals in our hospitals. And I will march again, and again, because the time is drawing near to a resolution when the government pass the laws that bring us to the safe confines of the 21st century. It is terrifying to realise that in the meantime the same fate as Savita could befall any of the women who get pregnant each year in Ireland, any of our mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, colleagues or acquaintances; that the doctors we trust are unable to use their skills at a point when the difference is life or death. Savita was not the first woman to die as a result of Ireland's resistance to abortion but she must be the last. This must never happen again.These were my thoughts as I cradled a candle in frozen hands in a sea of tiny lights that shone out from twenty thousand aching hearts.
Video - Dublin Marching For Savita