Savita Halappanavar

(Getty)

By Jamie Smyth, Ireland correspondent

Ireland has decided to hold a referendum to change its constitution to recognise gay marriage, marking the latest step in the transformation of one of Europe’s most Catholic countries into, arguably, one of its most socially liberal. Just nine European countries (most recently France) recognise gay marriage and opinion polls suggest a majority of Irish people support introducing it.

“The right of gay couples to marry is, quite simply, the civil rights issue of this generation, and, in my opinion, it’s time has come,” Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said at last years Gay Pride festival in Dublin.

The centre left Labour party has prioritised the issue of gay marriage while the socially conservative Fine Gael party do not want to be rushed on an issue, which could alienate rural supporters. 

A protest in memory of Savita Halappanavar in November 2012 (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty)

A protest in memory of Savita Halappanavar in November 2012 (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty)

The first time a referendum on abortion was held in Ireland, it was 1983 and I was 12. Our local church in a small town in the south east was crowded and silent as the priest told those who supported the ‘right to abortion’ to leave now.

No one left, or if they did, I was too transfixed on the pulpit to see them go. If the Catholic church didn’t fight this, I remember the priest saying, then it would slide into irrelevancy, not much good for anything except perhaps fighting to save the whale. In those pre-environmentalist days, it was a reference that completely baffled me and I assume much of the congregation. Who wanted to save the whale?

Outside the church, there were people with collection tins and petitions. Later I remember a debate at my convent school; a teacher asked who agreed that abortion was murder and got a unanimous show of hands. A pro-life campaigner came to school and I remember not just the three foot foetus on the projector but also the scary realisation that anyone who did have an abortion would most likely end up in a wheelchair.

Nearly 30 years on and several referendums later, an inquest this week investigated the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who died in an Irish hospital last October after a miscarriage. Her family say hospital staff repeatedly refused her requests for an abortion. A midwife told her an abortion was not possible because Ireland was a “Catholic country”. On Friday – what would have been her fifth wedding anniversary – the inquest found her death was by ‘medical misadventure’. Her husband said his wife’s treatment had been “barbaric and inhuman”.