This Friday the 26th of February, the people of Ireland will take to the polls to elect a new government. One of the topics needing urgent attention is the country’s highly restrictive abortion laws.
In the tourist travel book my boyfriend had when he first came to Ireland it warned “don’t start conversations with Irish people about abortion or religion”. That was ten years ago and not much has changed.
Abortion was illegal in Ireland in all cases until 2013. Current legislation only allows for abortion in cases where there is a risk of loss of the mothers life. However, criteria to qualify for abortion under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 are very restrictive.
This time last year, Independent Socialist Clare Daly proposed an amendment to the law, to allow for abortion in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities. Just to be clear, we are talking about pregnancies in which there is no chance that the baby will survive the birth. Sounds logical right? This bill was defeated by 104 votes to 20. This means that heartbroken women in this situation are forced to carry their dying baby in her body for 6, 7, 8 months. “When are you due?” “Do you know if it is a girl or a boy?” usually innocent questions are in this case unanswerable. It means that these mothers go through the torture of feeling her baby move and knowing that they will never take a breath. She has to suffer the mental strain of wondering every day how much pain her unborn child is suffering. She is left with no other choice than to go to another country to undergo a procedure with no aftercare, no counseling, and to come home empty-handed with no body to bury.
The 2013 change came about partly in response to the avoidable death of Savita Halappanavar caused by the restrictive abortion laws. Mrs Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant in October 2012 when she was admitted to hospital suffering a miscarriage. In the last seven days of her life she repeatedly requested an abortion for her dying baby. She was told “this is a Catholic country” and her request was denied based on the fact that the fetus still had a heartbeat. By the time her miscarriage came to a natural end four days later and the fetus was removed it was too late to save her life.
The media storm and Pro-Choice protests following Mrs Halappanavars death lead to the first legislation in Ireland allowing abortion. However, this legislation only allows abortion if the woman is at death’s door. Only if the pregnancy could end her life is she considered for the procedure. How ill do you allow someone to become before you start calling the four experts needed to make this decision? How close does she have to come to dying? These questions are not easy to answer and that is horrifically evident in cases that have arisen since the 2013 ruling.
In 2014 a teenage immigrant, raped and 8 weeks pregnant, requested an abortion on the grounds that she was suicidal. As required by the 2013 law, experts confirmed that she was indeed suicidal and judged her life to be at risk. However, the government used her legal status to delay and hinder the final decision. Her request for termination was refused and the girl went on hunger strike. In an attempt to save the life of the fetus, a caesarean section was performed against the girl’s wishes in the 25th week of pregnancy. This was 17 weeks after she first sought an abortion. Her extremely premature baby has been placed into care.
The law states that a pregnancy can be terminated if there is a risk to the life of the mother. But what if the mother is already dead? Should the pregnancy then be terminated? The law states that the fetus has equal right to life as the mother. In November 2014 an Irish woman, 14 weeks pregnant, fell and hit her head. On the 3rd of December she was declared clinically brain dead. Because her doctors were uncertain about the legal rights of her fetus, her body was placed on life support against the wishes of her family. In the 26 days that followed her family fought for her right to die. Her doctors refused to switch off her life support for fear they could be prosecuted under Ireland’s strict abortion laws. On the 26th of December in a ruling contrary to Irish constitution, the High Court decided that the life support machines could be switched off.
So even if there is a proven risk to a woman’s life, or if she is already dead, there is no guarantee that she can access termination services in Ireland. These are just two stories of women who actually qualified for abortion under the current law.
What about the women who do not qualify? The victims of rape and incest? The women carrying babies with fatal fetal abnormalities? The cases of failed contraception? What options do they have?
The modern day equivalent of the clothes hanger is abortion pills ordered on the internet. As you can imagine this is a very dangerous route to take. You have no idea what you are taking, if it is deadly poison or if it will have the desired effect. If it goes wrong, it is difficult to take the step to a hospital or doctor as you have broken the law. Anyone who orders termination pills on the internet or assists anyone in doing so runs the risk of 14 years in jail.
Since 1992, pregnant women are protected from prosecution if they travel abroad for an abortion. The Thirteenth Amendment states that the state shall not limit the freedom to travel of a woman. Imagine that, grown women being allowed to travel. On the same day in 1992 The Fourteenth Amendment was approved, allowing freedom of access to information with respect to abortion in other countries. Previous to this, Family Planning Centers faced prosecution if they provided any information in relation to abortion services in other countries. In a time before the internet this must have put a lot of women in dangerous situations.
Every day 13 Irish women travel to the UK for an abortion. That is over 5000 women per year who leave their support network and home to undergo a medical procedure that their country denies them. In a heartbreaking testimony Dr Susan Cahill tells how the Irish laws around abortion impacted her life. One of many Irish people living abroad, Dr Cahill discovered she was pregnant when visiting Ireland for a month. Unable to receive the medical care she needed in her home country, she was forced to remain pregnant for that month before returning to Canada to get the procedure there. What is heartbreaking about her story? That her country made her feel like a criminal. That she could not tell her family. That she was made prisoner in her own body. One detail of her story that struck a cord with me, that the clinics in the UK offer a reduced price to Irish women to help compensate for the travel costs. The clinics in the UK care more about the women of Ireland than the Irish government. That is heartbreaking.
One in every six people born in Ireland currently lives in a different country. Ireland has the highest percentage of people living abroad worldwide. If the Irish government of tomorrow wants their educated youth to ever come back they need to address this issue. From what I can follow from the election coverage online it seems that politicians are avoiding this topic like the plague. It is time that the Irish government started taking women’s health seriously.
I hope that the people of Ireland consider the candidates stance on abortion when casting their vote. Abortion is a medical procedure and only doctors and patients should decide if it is a suitable option in any situation. The government and church have no place in this conversation. A pro-choice slogan that has been going around for years comes to mind: “If you don’t agree with abortion, then don’t have one.”
The hashtag you need to follow for tweets on this topic is #repealthe8th. You can follow the General Election developments with #ge16 on twitter. You can read Irish women’s abortion stories on this site. Frighteningly the stories from 40 years ago differ little from those of today. If you would like to help, you can sign Amnesty International’s petition asking Ireland to change its abortion law.