Irish immigrants and Irish Americans say they will continue to have their voices heard by the Irish government until reform of the Irish abortion law is a reality.

Led by Irish citizens Belinda McKeon and Max McGuinness, New York became the latest city to hold vigils for Savita Halappanavar, who died last month after being denied a termination of her miscarried baby in a hospital in Galway.

Among those protesting outside the Irish Consulate on Tuesday night was National Book Award winner Colum McCann, who is Irish-born.

Savita, originally from India, first went into hospital on October 25th and it was quickly discovered that she was suffering a miscarriage. She endured three days of pain where she was repeatedly denied an abortion by doctors before she died on October 28th.

Since then, there has been an outpouring of grief and disgust as people in Ireland and internationally have called on the Irish government to change legislation regarding abortion so such a horrific death never happens again.

Author McKeon and Columbia Graduate student McGuinness were shocked by what was going on in their home country and decided to take action to put international pressure on the Irish government.

The first candlelit vigil was held on Monday evening at Lehmann Lawn at Columbia University’s Barnard College, and the second was held Tuesday evening at the Irish Consulate. Both vigils included heartfelt speeches from McKeon and McGuinness to change legislation and ended with a minute silence for Halappanavar. 

McKeon, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Solace”, stated that neither of them have ever organised a vigil or protest before but felt compelled to do so when Savita’s plight came to light.

“It was just so shocking that this could happen in a civilised society,” she said.

“I teach a creative writing course at Barnard College and the week before the news broke we were looking at a short story set in 1980s Ireland. I was explaining to my students, who are mostly young American women, that Ireland has come a long way since then and then the next week I have to come in and talk about this. I have to talk about a Hindu woman who was denied an abortion because she was told by a doctor that ‘this is a Catholic hospital’.

Read more news on Savita Halappanavar's case here

“I almost didn’t want to talk about it. I felt so ashamed that this happened in my country. It just shows that maybe we haven’t come that far at all. It’s shocking that there have been no changes made in abortion legislation since the X case 20 years ago. That’s two decades of pregnant women being in danger and a woman dying like that in a hospital should not be tolerated.”

McGuinness, who teaches French at Columbia University, said that the “lack of clarity” in legislation related to abortion in Ireland meant that Savita’s death was an “accident waiting to happen”.

“There are different procedures in different hospitals,” he said.

“Here we have a woman who was in her prime and her fate was decided by the unacceptable risk of what hospital she was in. Why should there be different rules in Drumcondra Hospital and then different rules altogether in Galway hospital? There should be set rules so doctors know exactly what to do in situations like this.”

McKeon concurs with this and believes that international pressure has to be applied in order to change laws surrounding abortion.

“It seems Ireland, and our Taoiseach Enda Kenny, are always very concerned with their international image,” she said.

“That is why we have done this. The government wants us to go away and shut up. We’re not going to do that. We want to display international solidarity so something like this never happens again.”

McGuinness agrees with this and states that Irish Americans have influenced major decisions in Ireland in the past.

Read more news on Savita Halappanavar's case here

“Rallies and protests in America have always been taken seriously by the Irish and they have had huge influences in the Peace Process and the rights of homosexuals. We don’t want this to go away. The European Court of Human Rights in 2010 condemned the lack of availability and the rigidness of abortion legislation in Ireland and still nothing. The government have now said that they will make changes in the New Year but that is not acceptable. Another woman like Savita could die in the meantime. We don’t want this to ever happen again.”

Other speakers at the New York vigils included Nick Laird, Annette Clancy, Lauren Gutterman and Mary Breasted.

Here’s Darren Redmond’s video from the vigil at Columbia University: