Belfast Telegraph

Savita's death made abortion headline news in US

By Jim Dee

Last week, amid concerns about another Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip and worries about Europe's crumbling economy, news from Ireland temporarily vaulted to the top of America's news cycle.

From leading electronic media outlets, such as CBS and CNN, to major newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Time magazine, Savita Halappanavar's heartbreaking death struck a chord with those concerned with one of the most volatile issues on the American political landscape: abortion.

The tragic tale of the Galway-based dentist was covered in detail across the spectrum of US media outlets.

In just over two months' time, America will mark the 40th anniversary of the US Supreme Court's Roe vs Wade ruling that legalised abortion in America. And, as is the case in Ireland abortion remains highly-contested terrain in the US.

During the fever-pitch home stretch of this autumn's presidential sweepstakes, much attention was paid to president Barack Obama's focus on the wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of the populace.

Hot-button social issues that have traditionally fired up hardline Republicans (such as gay marriage, immigration laws and abortion) took on back-burner status, in the presidential contest, at least. But congressional showdowns were another matter.

In August, Todd Akin, a Senate candidate from Missouri, made the unscientific claim that, in cases of what he labelled "legitimate rape", women have an internal mechanism for miscarrying the unwanted foetus.

Following a national furore over his remarks, including widespread criticism from his own Republican party, Akin back-peddled. Nonetheless, in the election, he was handily defeated by Democrat Claire McCaskill, who had lambasted him over his abortion remarks during the campaign.

In October, Richard Mourdock, a Republican seeking one of Indiana's two Senate seats, torpedoed his campaign by declaring that women who become pregnant as a result of rape shouldn't have abortions, because such pregnancies are things "God intended to happen".

Whatever their personal views, both Akin and Mourdock ran up against the reality that abortion is an established reality in modern America. According to the US government's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008 - the most recent official tabulation - there were 825,564 legally induced abortions in America. That figure is a drop from the post-Roe vs Wade-era high of 1.2m in 1995.

Exit polling from the election indicated that pro-choice advocates are gaining ground.

In spite of the fact that several prominent American bishops and cardinals continue to speak out against abortion, according to a poll by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute, 60% of Catholics want the Church to concentrate more on social justice issues instead of abortion. Only 39% expressed the opposite view.

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