In March of 2015, Amnesty International launched a new international campaign, entitled ‘My Body, My Rights.’ This movement aims to safeguard and lobby for the sexual and reproductive rights of women across the globe. Following the announcement, Amnesty Ireland broadcast a bold new stance on abortion: that the current legislation was “outrageous” and needed to be reformed immediately.
Ireland has been hesitant on the subject of abortion for decades – yet the issue has really come to the forefront in recent years. It is one of only 4 countries to criminalise abortion in Europe, alongside San Marino, Lichtenstein, Malta and Andorra (and Poland, to some extent.) Ireland has historically been slow to implement human rights reforms and laws to safeguard women’s rights, partly due to a strong Catholic heritage; controversial issues were and still are taboo in some communities. But what is the current legislation, and what does it mean for Irish women?
Ireland’s current constitution is deeply influenced by the country’s Catholic roots. The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution deems the right to life of the unborn as equal to the life of the mother, which is taken as the basis to outlaw the procedure of abortion. In 2013, after the much-publicised death of a woman in an Irish hospital, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was signed into law. This allows for an abortion when the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman in any way, including possible suicide.
Perhaps Ireland’s stance on abortion is not surprising, taking its strong traditional values into account. Contraception, divorce and homosexuality were only fully legalised in the 1990s. Though we have come a long way, abortion still looms as the final obstacle to be cleared for many, though opposition poses an obstacle.
Irish women face many difficulties under the current abortion legislation. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act does not allow for cases involving rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities, where the child would not survive outside the womb. There is great ambiguity in the wording of the Act, which doesn’t properly outline what constitutes a “risk” to the life of the woman.
Also, while it is legal to travel abroad to the UK for an abortion, it is difficult and expensive. This then discriminates against poor women and certain minority groups. Furthermore, those who cannot afford the abortion in the UK would then be further disadvantaged, as the cost of raising the child would be much higher than the abortion in the long run. Every year, over 4,000 people travel abroad to have abortions, including single women, women who have been raped and couples whose unborn child is suffering from fatal abnormalities. Amnesty International quotes Gráinne, who spoke about carrying a child not expected to survive, on their website:
“How cruel would it be to make me go through this… To put me through a full pregnancy. I would have the breast milk, I would have everybody asking me how long are you gone?… How could they think that would not affect someone mentally?”
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act comes on the heels of many controversial cases concerning abortion. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman, had a miscarriage at 17 weeks and was treated in an Irish hospital. Even after her repeated requests for an abortion, the doctor refused to perform one, as the heartbeat of the foetus could still be detected and there was apparently not a large enough risk to her life. Savita then contracted septic shock and died of organ failure. Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, described the moment when the doctor told them that an abortion was not possible, as Ireland is a “Catholic country.”
After the Act was introduced, there was another high profile case concerning a refugee dubbed Ms Y. She was raped during the conflict in her home country, and once she arrived in Ireland and discovered her pregnancy, requested an abortion on the grounds of suicide. A psychiatrist assigned to her noted:
“It is documented that Ms Y’s presenting symptoms were as follows: feeling very low, self-isolating, poor appetite, feels abandoned by everyone/no help given/ feels deceived; wants to terminate pregnancy, has nightmares and flashbacks of rape; says pregnancy resulted from rape . . . determined to end her life rather than have baby; feels hopeless and helpless.”
Ms Y’s pregnancy passed the deadline for an abortion on suicide grounds and she was transferred to a maternity hospital. There, she refused to eat and drink, and said she would rather die than give birth. A court order gave the health system permission to force feed her to ensure a safe delivery, and eventually her baby was delivered via c-section. Since this event, pro-life groups have agreed that a child should not be punished for the actions of its father. A pro-life group called ‘Youth Defence’ have named the baby Hope, and have set up a website where cards can be sent to the hospital where they are admitted. However, the case of Ms. Y has also been heavily criticised. Many viewed it as the exploitation of a vulnerable woman, where her health and suffering were cast aside in favour of protecting the unborn foetus.
Currently, it is illegal in Ireland to procure an abortion outside the specified terms. A woman who is raped and terminates her pregnancy can face a prison sentence of up to 14 years. There hasn’t been a referendum on abortion in 12 years (since 2003), and there is none set to take place. Irish political parties are reluctant to get involved in the issue, considering that the population has such polarised views. Protests are loud, large and common, with both sides passionately defending their views. With a recent UN Committee report demanding Ireland bring its abortion legislation “in line with international human rights law,” it seems that the tide may be changing. But seeing the attitudes of the people and the reluctance of the government, there are no guarantees for Ireland’s women, and for now they will be forced to fly across the seas if they cannot bring their pregnancy to term.
For more information on the situation in Ireland, follow these links:
Debate Over Abortion Ban Rages On In Ireland : VICE News
Abortion in Ireland: Irishfamilyplanning
Abortion: Ireland’s Guilty Secret (BBC Documentary 2015)
or visit Amnesty International Ireland’s website.