As the Republic of Ireland’s political parties meet for talks to establish a new government after the unsuccessful election in February, the most controversial topic is a referendum on the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment gives the life of the unborn the same rights as the life of the mother. The battle between pro-choice and pro-life campaigners has been a common theme in Ireland for many years. In recent years, however, new laws have been introduced to make abortion more accessible in certain circumstances, although the reception of these laws has been negative on both sides of the abortion debate.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 sets out the circumstances in which abortion in Ireland is legal. These narrow circumstances address the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman seeking an abortion. The act allows a legal abortion to be performed only if the pregnancy endangers the life of the women either due to physical illness or suicide, making it a life or death issue. The practitioner who performs the abortion must be aware of “the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable,” meaning that that majority of the time the life and human rights of the pregnant women come second to that of the foetus. As the conditions for abortion are so restricted, pregnancies as a result of rape or incest have to be carried to full term. This also includes pregnancies where the baby has no chance of survival outside the womb. This is where the argument around legalising abortion gets complicated.
Ireland is a historically Catholic country and nowadays, more than 80% of the population identify as Catholic. This illustrates why the opposition against legalising abortion is so intense. The general Catholic attitude to abortion is that all life is sacred, meaning that abortion for any reason is inexcusable. However, there are also activists who believe that abortion in the case of rape or incest should be allowed, but not for unplanned pregnancies. On the opposite side of the debate are the pro-choice groups, who believe that women should be able to make decisions about their own bodies and pregnancies. The human rights of both the women and the foetus is a highly contested argument both for and against legalising abortion. The current legislation puts the mother’s rights second, denying her autonomy over her body. It is also argued that other options for unwanted pregnancy, such as adoption, deny the women her basic human rights.
In 2012, before the introduction of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, the death of Savita Halappanavar brought Irish abortion laws to public attention. After experiencing severe back pain and being admitted to hospital Savita asked the doctor for an abortion. This request was denied due to the laws against abortion despite her health deteriorating. She was told that as long as the foetus’ heartbeat remained she could not terminate the pregnancy. After she miscarried her condition continued to worsen and she passed away days after requesting the abortion. Savita’s death caused outrage in Ireland and the wider world, with multiple groups protesting the Irish government. Although the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was introduced a year later, pregnant women are still in desperate situations because they cannot legally have an abortion in Northern Ireland.
Protests after the death of Savita Halappanavar
For women who cannot receive an abortion due to the 2013 Act, the options available for terminating their pregnancy are to travel outside Ireland for an abortion or to purchase miscarriage-inducing pills. Amnesty International estimate that around 4,000 women travel to the United Kingdom from Ireland each year to receive an abortion. The 1995 Regulation of Information (Services Outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Act legalises this journey made by so many Irish women. Clinics in the United Kingdom are accustomed to those travelling to receive a termination and many charities give advice specifically for Irish women. This option is expensive and often a journey they have to make alone.
For other women their only option to terminate their pregnancy is to perform an abortion themselves. The most common route is by purchasing mifepristone and misoprostol, which when taken together induces an abortion. These can be purchased online easily and medical information is also readily available. Organisations such as Women on Web and Marie Stopes offer practical medical information for Irish women. Despite the access to medical advice online, these pills can have serious side effects, including excessive bleeding. In October 2015 the Abortion Pill Bus visited four towns across Ireland providing advice and information for women seeking abortions. Supported by the organisation For Reproductive Rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity (ROSA) and Marie Stopes, the bus had a consultation room where women could speak to a doctor over skype. This allowed them to get more specific medical advice for their situation without fear of being reported to the authorities by an Irish doctor. Under Irish law this bus was illegal as it was distributing miscarriage pills, yet no arrests were made.
Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe but progress looks to be on the horizon, with large human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations putting pressure on Ireland to recognise the human right that women have over their own bodies. This also raises interesting questions about the relationship between church and state, showing the influence the Catholic church has in Ireland. Considering the history of abortion in Ireland, it is unlikely the debates around the topic will ever cease.