Ireland’s new abortion law; a step forward?
Sarah McCarthy, a pro-choice campaigner in Ireland, challenges the idea that the country’s new abortion bill represents progress
Last week, the Irish Dáil (parliament) passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, a piece of legislation which lays out the circumstances in which a woman in Ireland can access a termination in order to save her life. Despite the international cries of this “historic” and “progressive” moment, the Act is as inadequate as expected. Arguably, this legislation marks a step back for women in Ireland, and it will certainly do nothing to help almost all of those who need to access abortion.
In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman in Ireland is entitled to an abortion when her life is at risk, including from a risk of suicide. This was based on the case of Miss X, a fourteen year old rape victim who maintained that she would end her own life if forced to carry her pregnancy to term. Although this ruling was made over 21 years ago, legislation was not passed to reflect it until last week. Consequently, women and doctors have been in a lethal limbo for the past two decades.
Over the years, seven successive governments have commissioned several “Expert Groups” and held two referenda in their efforts to fob off the responsibility of legislating for the X Case. In September of last year, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny stated that legislating for the X Case “is not of priority for government now.” However, this attitude quickly shifted when the news of Savita Halappanavar’s death broke last November.
The facts of Savita’s death are widely documented, and it is almost certain that our laws against abortion contributed to her death. Despite requesting a termination several times, she was not given the care that she required because a foetal heartbeat which had no chance of survival was still present. Her pregnancy was not terminated until it was too late, and she died after days in agony.
When news of this tragedy swept across the globe and demonstrations of thousands spread across Ireland, the Government changed its tune pretty sharpish. The report of the latest “Expert Group” on the matter magically arrived on Minister for Health James Reilly’s desk the night before the Irish Times story broke. Yet it still took them eight months to try and appease all of the deputies threatening to mutiny over this “outrageous attack on the unborn”. Eventually, after seemingly endless hours of deeply misogynistic “debate”, it has passed through the Dáil.
A victory for the pro-choice movement? Sadly, I’m not convinced.
Up until now, the criminal sanction for obtaining and/or performing an illegal abortion in Ireland fell under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act (which is still in force in “Northern Ireland”). Under this, the punishment for procuring an abortion is:
“Penal Servitude for Life or for any Term not less than Three Years,-or to be imprisoned for any Term not exceeding Two Years, with or without Hard Labour, and with or without Solitary Confinement.”
Under the new Act, the punishment for an illegal abortion is “a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years or both.” Certainly better than life in penal servitude; but also much more modern and therefore more likely to actually be handed down.
This criminalisation does not affect the 4,000+ women who travel to the UK to access abortion. Rather it targets those who cannot afford or do not have the papers to travel. Every year, thousands of women order abortion pills online and take them without medical supervision. This measure will have potentially devastating consequences as they will be afraid to seek the medical care they require.
Another regressive and disturbing element of the new Act is the treatment of women who seek to access abortion because their pregnancy has made them suicidal. While only one doctor is required to sign off on a termination in the case of a physical emergency, women experiencing a psychiatric emergency will be compelled to go through an arduous process. They will face a panel of three doctors (two psychiatrists and one obstetrician) who must be unanimous in their decision to grant her a termination.
If she is refused the procedure, she can appeal to another panel of three doctors, who must again be unanimous in their decision if she is to be allowed a termination. In other words, an obstetrician with no psychiatric experience can veto the decision of two psychiatrists on the determination of whether someone is suicidal. The idea that a woman already experiencing a forced pregnancy so traumatic that she is suicidal may be put through this process truly beggars belief.
Ultimately, this Bill was never going to reflect a respect for women or even a step towards reproductive justice. In 1983 an Amendment was made to the Irish Constitution which equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with the “right to life of the unborn”. This new legislation actually went a step further and codified the life of the unborn as beginning from the moment of implantation. If women have any hope of attaining reproductive justice in Ireland, this Amendment must be repealed through a referendum.
Obviously, we are not going to succeed in getting a referendum by appealing to the hearts and rationality of our legislators. Back in the day, activists in the women’s movement fought the laws against contraception by brazenly breaking them, with direct actions such as the famous “condom train” and simply handing out contraception. Today, we’ve already started similar tactics with actions such as handing out leaflets with information on abortion clinics in England and slapping up stickers everywhere which publicise women on web. Many activists help women to access abortion through various means, such as helping them to order pills online and being with them when they take them.*
In the last year, the pro-choice movement in Ireland has gained incredible momentum, and it is a genuinely invigorating campaign to be involved in. While last week’s legislation may be entirely inadequate, I have full faith that we will eventually succeed in giving the Government no choice but to call a referendum on the 8th Amendment.
*Obviously performing your own abortion without medical supervision is not ideal, but it’s very safe before nine weeks and for those who make that choice, it’s much better than the alternative.