The tragic and unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar — a 31-year old Indian woman who was denied a life-saving abortion in an Irish hospital — has sparked reactions across the globe. Thousands have marched in Dublin. Demonstrations have taken place in India and elsewhere. An international day of protest is called for November 21. Tense meetings between Indian and Irish government officials are taking place. The overriding question now is: what will be the legacy of this horrible event, beyond the unspeakable grief of Savita’s loved ones? After the demonstrations have stopped, will Irish hospitals — where abortion remains illegal but is permissible in life-threatening conditions — proceed differently in the future? Will the country finally move toward legalizing abortion?
This heartbreaking incident has led me to contemplate the long history of abortion struggles around the globe and under what circumstances, change takes place. It is not an exaggeration to say that throughout history millions of women have died and even more have been injured because of the lack of safe abortion. But only some of these tragedies capture the public’s attention and become catalysts for change. And sometimes public attitudes are affected even when a woman’s death is not involved.
Consider the history of abortion in the United States. Two events that occurred in the 1960s were instrumental in moving much of the country toward an endorsement of legal abortion. The first, in 1962, involved Sherri Chessen Finkbine, a Phoenix woman pregnant with her fifth child, who learned that the Thalidomide pills she had been using as a sleep aid were strongly associated with severe birth defects. Her doctor was able to arrange a “therapeutic” (i.e. approved) abortion for her at a local hospital, but Finkbine, in an act of decency that would prove costly, went public with her story as she hoped to warn other women who were in her situation. Her interview with a journalist created a media sensation, and nervous hospital authorities cancelled her abortion. Ultimately Finkbine, unable to find an abortion anywhere in the United States, obtained one in Sweden, where she delivered a fetus with missing limbs. Doctors told her the fetus would have had no chance of survival. Finkbine’s story spread beyond Phoenix to become a national story, including a cover on Life magazine. This incident, particularly the unprecedented visibility of abortion on the cover of the leading news magazine of the 1960s, “had a galvanizing effect on public opinion,” in the words of the journalist Linda Greenhouse, a longtime observer of the trajectory of abortion rights in the United States.
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