Savita Halappanavar's death has transformed Irish abortion debate
Abortion is now part of Irish life – what is needed is a referendum on giving women easier access
was one of those "I told you so" moments you hope never to have. It's almost 30 years since pro-choice campaigners warned that the 1983 amendment to the Irish constitution guaranteeing "the right to life of the unborn" would put women's lives at risk. But we always hoped it wouldn't happen.
There have been other cases – Sheila Hodges and Michelle Harte both died of cancer aggravated by pregnancy – but none as stark as the death of Savita Halappanavar. And far too many women have had to travel to England gravely ill, medical notes from their doctors under their arms.
It's 20 years since the 1992 X case, when the Dublin high court prevented a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling to England for an abortion. Thousands of mainly young women and men took to the streets to demand: "let her go", and shook the Irish establishment to its core. With mass anger swirling around, the supreme court ruled that the girl had a right to an abortion in Ireland because her life was at risk through the threat of suicide.
Two referenda were held as a result, in 1992 and 2002, to try to set aside the threat of suicide as grounds for a legal abortion. The government was defeated in both. Since the X case, there has been a sea change in attitudes to abortion. Presented with a real-life woman rather than an abstract idea, people looked at their sisters, mothers, daughters, friends and thought: "I can trust her; if she says she needs an abortion, she does".
The 1992 referendum also guaranteed women the right to travel for abortion. Following that, the number of women travelling to England rose from 4,402 in 1993 to 6,673 in 2001. The numbers have fallen, thanks to a government campaign promoting contraception. As one who sold illegal condoms at rock festivals in the early 1980s, I smile when the condom ads come on TV.
The terms of the debate have transformed. Phone-in programmes hear women telling how they raised the money to travel for an abortion and asking why they can't get abortions here. Earlier this year, four women appeared on Irish TV's most-watched chatshow asking why they had been forced to travel to England to end pregnancies despite being told the foetus could not live after birth.
No referendum has ever offered Irish people the opportunity to vote for less restrictive abortion. Yet, a 2004 survey by the government-funded Crisis Pregnancy Agency found that 90% of 18- to 45-year-olds support abortion in certain circumstances, with 51% saying women should have the right to an abortion.
Many working-class Irish women, unable to afford to pay for a private abortion in England, buy pills from the internet and self-induce abortions. In 2012, abortion is part of Irish life.
Within hours of the Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland breaking the news of Halappanavar's death, 2,000 people gathered outside the Irish parliament to demand legislation for abortion. Public opinion is largely pro-choice. What's needed is another referendum: this time to allow easier access to abortion.
And the problem is not limited to the Irish republic. In Northern Ireland, the law is still as it was in England before the Abortion Act 1967. Essentially, women in Northern Ireland are treated the same way as in the republic when they need an abortion. Very ill women get their medical notes to bring to England. Hundreds of illegal abortions take place in this part of the "United Kingdom" every year – safe abortions using pills bought over the internet, but illegal nonetheless. Abortion is very much part of Northern Irish life, too.
Thursday's Belfast Telegraph editorial asked whether a similar tragedy could happen north of the border: doctors there also have "to interpret an imprecise law every time they consider performing an abortion".
All of Northern Ireland's main trade unions support a woman's right to choose. And all the indications are that public opinion would back a more liberal law.
When, in 2008, manoeuvring at Westminster prevented a vote on the extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, the Alliance for Choice said women's lives were being left in the hands of "an evangelical Taliban". Today, the DUP health minister's party has several senior figures who are part of a self-styled "Caleban"; they are members of the Caleb Foundation, an evangelical group that urges politicians to "take their stand against policies which are at variance with the word of God".
If the situation in the republic exposed by the death of Halappanavar is not good enough, how can it be good enough for women in any part of the UK?
Goretti Horgan is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Ulster and a pro-choice campaigner