It’s almost impossible to get an abortion in Ireland — but that could change soon
Thousands of people are expected to gather in cities around the world on Saturday to protest in favor of abortion rights for Irish women. The protesters are expected not only in Dublin but in cities including New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Wellington, Sydney and even Phnom Penh in Cambodia, focused on the fact that Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
Indeed Irish law considers abortion a criminal act — even in the case of rape, incest or a fatal fetal abnormality — punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
For the first time since Dublin’s March for Choice began in 2012, the campaign has taken on a global aspect, bringing with it renewed attention on Ireland’s abortion laws which the UN this year called “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
Those organizing the campaign believe it is a basic question of human rights. “Women are still treated as second class citizens in their own country,” Vanessa O’Sullivan who is helping organize the march in Dublin told VICE News. “They are still treated like infants when it comes to their healthcare. They are not trusted.”
That however is just one view, with many in Ireland still holding strong pro-life opinions. “The fact that some countries bury their heads in the sand and won’t face up to the facts of what abortion involves is not a reason for Ireland to join with these other countries and introduce a law that strips the unborn child of all protections,” Cora Sherlock of the Pro Life Campaign told VICE News.
Ireland is in many ways a very modern country. Just last year, it became the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote, winning admiration and acclaim across the globe.
However Ireland is still very much a country rooted in an era when the Catholic church dominated. Despite years of sexual abuse controversies, declining numbers, a shortfall in priests and an aging congregation, it still casts a huge shadow over the country, and nowhere is that more obvious than in relation to the abortion laws in this country.
According to Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution — known as the eighth amendment — the state “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
This effectively gives an embryo, from the moment of conception, the same rights as the woman carrying that embryo. This, according to those campaigning to change the law, “creates a discriminatory health system where a pregnant woman only has a qualified right to health care.”
The result is that thousands of Irish women every year have to travel outside of the country — most to the UK — to have an abortion. The only situation where an abortion is legal in Ireland is when there is an immediate threat to the life of the mother.
While women have been campaigning to repeal the eighth amendment from the day the country voted it into law in 1983, this has gathered significant pace in the last couple of years, sparked by the tragic death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who was refused an abortion by doctors in an Irish hospital even though she was suffering a miscarriage. She eventually died from blood poisoning.
This incident gave the repeal campaign a renewed push and as the campaign to change the law gathered pace, more women who have been forced out of the country to have an abortion are telling their stories. One of those women is Vanessa O’Sullivan, who one month before the first March for Choice in 2012, was raped.
“I had to leave and go to Britain on my own a few months later to have an abortion. For me it really is personal,” O’Sullivan told VICE News. “It is something that I am forced to carry with me, and forced to relive, and I don’t think my medical history or my medical choices should be a political football, but they are, and it is all down to the eighth amendment.”
There is however another side to the story. In 2013 a woman who traveled to London from Dublin for an abortion at the Marie Stopes clinic died in a taxi just hours after having the operation. “That’s just one example of many,” Sherlock said. “People deserve to hear both sides of the story and unfortunately that is not happening.”
Sherlock said there is a bias in the Irish media towards the pro-choice campaign, and that pro-life marches in Ireland in recent years have attracted up to 50,000 people but “the media interest was tiny compared to events organised by abortion advocates that drew much smaller crowds.”
It is true that the Irish media appears to be giving more prominence to the repeal campaign in recent years, but that is likely as a result of public opinion swaying in favor of its call for a referendum on the amendment.
O’Sullivan works with the Abortion Rights Campaign which is organising the March for Choice in Dublin which is expected to attract up to 20,000 on Saturday, and the group is also coordinating with those organising events in cities around the globe.
In Portland, Oregon Fiona Gwozdz is organizing a picnic to help raise awareness of the issue. Gwozdz, who was born in Dublin and lived there for seven years in her 20s, worked with her friend Karen Twomey in Vancouver, to organise the global gathering out of a sense of frustration and anger.
“We were just so enraged that this was still happening and we were feeling very disconnected from the conversation at home. We felt it wasn’t getting the attention it needs,” Gwozdz told VICE News.
Gwozdz admitted she and Twomey felt embarrassed about the situation in Ireland, but they have used this to their advantage and “channelled that [embarrassment] into energy for change.”
The embarrassment was made all the more real in June when a report by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee found that a woman who was forced to choose between travelling abroad to have an abortion or carry the baby full term despite the presence of a fatal foetal abnormality, had been subject to “discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
While a large number of Irish politicians now support the call for a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment, this year’s general election suggested that it was not a major issue. “The recent General Election in Ireland showed that dismantling the 8th Amendment was not a big issue for voters at all,” Sherlock said. “In fact, the most radical members of parliament in favour of ‘Repeal the 8th’ lost their seats.”
Again Sherlock claimed a media bias in reporting this aspect of the campaign. A survey carried out by Irish news website The Journal in June polled every single sitting Irish member of parliament to find out whether or not they would be in favor of repealing the eight amendment.
Only 30 percent of the 158 elected politicians came out openly in favor of it while just 14 percent said no. However, more than 50 percent of the politicians did not respond to the survey, suggesting that many are aware that coming out in favor of one side or the other could alienate the people they count on for votes. And with another Irish election a possibility in the next 12 months, it is clear that while Ireland is certainly changing its view on abortion, it is not something which will happen overnight.
Repealing the eighth amendment would be a first step in a long process of changing the way Ireland thinks about abortion and ultimately how its laws address provide for it. The latest polls suggest that a referendum would pass, but getting Ireland to bring in laws decriminalizing abortion could take many more years of campaigning.
The global aspect of the march on Saturday will certainly open the eyes of many to the situation in Ireland who previously may not have known about the abortion laws in Ireland and the pro-life movement is worried what the impact of the coverage — both inside and outside Ireland — will have on the debate.
“Sadly I think the discussion surrounding the March for Choice will focus on euphemisms like ‘choice’ and ‘reproductive rights’ without letting people have a full and thorough understanding of the impact of what repealing the 8th amendment might have on Ireland, which would involve widespread access to abortion and total disregard for the unborn child and suffering abortion causes many women,” Sherlock said.
Repealing the eighth amendment would not give women unfettered access to abortion as the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which was introduced in 2013 in the wake of the death of Savita Halappanavar, still makes abortion illegal and a criminal act with a 14 year jail sentence.
For the pro-choice campaign, this is all about awareness and opening people’s eyes to the reality of the situation in Ireland in 2016.
“We cannot even have a conversation about our attitudes, about changing the law as it stands that came in in 2013 [Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act], we can’t have any discussion until the 8th amendment is repealed,” O’Sullivan said.