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This Government came to power with no intention of legislating on abortion. Its 2011 Programme for Government health section made five commitments under ‘bioethics’. Four of these five commitments promised legislation. On abortion, it carefully avoided any intent on enacting legislation. Irish politicians know the divisiveness of political debates on what are perceived as moral matters.
The Government was forced into acting on abortion after Savita Halappanavar’s death. At 17 weeks’ pregnant, Savita requested an abortion, as she miscarried. This was denied by medical staff, who detected a foetal heartbeat. She died days later from a sepsis infection.
Under huge national and international pressure, the Government legislated for abortion. During the summer of 2013, Fine Gael expelled five of their members as they voted against the party whip on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013.
The Act gave effect to the 1992 Supreme Court ruling on the X-case. It took our political leaders over 20 years to introduce abortion into Ireland in the most restrictive way possible — only when the life of the mother is at risk.
Writing on abortion in Ireland in 1992, academic and activist Dr Ailbhe Smith said: “Women in Ireland are living in a police state… the reproductive activities of women in Ireland are subjected to a process of ‘regulation, discipline and control’… in accordance with State policy and laws.”
This situation remains in 2015.
As a result, Ireland is under scrutiny by leading international human rights organisations, which call for Ireland to legislate for abortion in line with international human rights standards.
Each day, at least 10 Irish women leave Ireland for an abortion. Last year, the UN Human Rights Commission specified it was ‘discriminatory’ that women in Ireland relied on abortion services in another country. The Irish State admitted that only women with resources are able to travel.
The UN was very critical of the criminalisation of women and doctors in Ireland. In their concluding observations, they called for the Irish Government “to revise its legislation on abortion, including its Constitution, to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risk to the health of the mother, or fatal foetal abnormality”.
On 30 November, Northern Ireland’s High Court ruled that women who were the victims of sexual crime and cases of fatal foetal abnormality were entitled to exemptions in the law. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, women in Northern Ireland are subject to the same laws as the Republic and denied access to abortion, even in these exceptional circumstances.
Polls show that a majority of Irish people support a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution, which gives equal rights to the unborn as to the mother. The most recent poll shows that 68 per cent think abortion is acceptable when pregnancy is a result of rape and there is a medical risk to the life of the mother, 60 per cent support abortion in the case of the risk of suicide, and 55 per cent are in favour of it when there are fatal foetal abnormalities.
Coinciding with these poll results, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Dr James Reilly said that the coalition must move quickly to repeal the Eighth Amendment through a referendum early in the next term of government. The Taoiseach and a majority of Fine Gael party faithful were not pleased.
At the end of November, Labour Women published draft abortion legislation, which would allow for abortion under four medically certified grounds — risk to life, risk to health, cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality.
That same week Enda Kenny exemplified his role as a pragmatic politician without any real convictions, other than a desire to stay in office. In response to the momentum for the Government to act further on abortion, the Taoiseach announced that he would set up “a citizens’ convention to debate changes to the Eighth Amendment” within six months of the general election. In addition, he said that there would be a free vote in the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party on abortion.
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar also entered the fray, saying he believed the constitutional right to life should remain. He admitted that the current law is too restrictive, yet he is concerned that if the Eighth Amendment is removed, the Oireachtas could do whatever it liked, and “could even legislate for third-trimester terminations”.
Nobody is talking about legislating for third-trimester abortions. Varadkar called for a more ‘grown-up’ debate on abortion. It is Minister Varadkar that has some growing up to do.
Labour and Sinn Féin have promised to campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment; Fianna Fáil has promised not to. Fine Gael is unlikely to act.
This is a now a hot election issue.
Irish people are not looking for abortion on demand. They are looking for a basic human right — the choice to have an abortion in Ireland.
The Abortion Papers Ireland Volume 2, edited by Aideen Quilty, Sinead Kennedy and Catherine Conlon, was published in December by Attic Press.