Pro-choice groups mobilise ahead of Irish abortion referendum

Pro-choice groups mobilise ahead of Irish abortion referendum

Pro-choice supporters march at a demonstration on 8 March in Dublin, Ireland.

(Julia Gaulon)

“My body, my choice”, “Trust women”. There was no shortage of slogans at the demonstration defending access to abortion, held in the Irish capital of Dublin, on 8 March.

NGOs, political parties, trade unions and thousands of people came together to encourage the people of Ireland to vote for the repeal of the eighth amendment of the constitution – a text which considerably limits access to abortion – during a referendum due to be held at the end of May.

The Republic of Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe with particularly restrictive access to abortion. In Malta, for example, it is completely prohibited and in Poland it is only authorised in specific cases (such as rape, incest, when the foetus is diagnosed with severe and irreversible disability, or the life of the mother or the foetus is in danger) and Polish women may face even tighter restrictions if proposed legislation is passed seeking to ban it in the case of foetal impairment.

In Ireland, which has a strong Catholic tradition, abortion is only authorised if the mother’s life is in danger – and therefore banned in cases of rape, incest and foetal impairment. Many in Ireland are now calling for a relaxation of this particularly restrictive law.

Their goal is the repeal of the constitution’s eighth amendment, which gives the mother and the foetus equal status in terms of the right to life. Introduced following a referendum in 1983, pushed for by politicians and religious leaders worried by the legalisation of abortion in other countries, this article makes any relaxation of the abortion law extremely difficult.

The right to abortion in cases where the mother’s life is at risk was not enacted in legislation until 2013, following the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was refused an abortion whilst miscarrying and subsequently died of septicaemia.

Forced to travel to abort

“It [the eighth amendment] has caused untold hardship in Ireland,” Sinéad Kennedy of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, grouping of over 100 organisations campaigning for the repeal of the amendment, tells Equal Times.

“Almost half of our members are women,” explains David Joyce of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), which had already opposed the amendment in the 1980s [editor’s note: not all the unions affiliated to the ICTU have taken a stance on the issue, but one of the largest, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, or SIPTU, has spoken out in favour of the repeal].

“For us, it’s unacceptable that they live in a country that forces them to go abroad for a termination of their pregnancy or criminalises them for accessing abortion pills,” adds Joyce.

In 2016, this strict abortion legislation meant that at least 3265 women were forced to travel to clinics in England and Wales, according to the records of the UK Department of Health.

It is a journey that 29-year-old Shelley, who is campaigning against the eighth amendment, had to go through.

“I went with my boyfriend at the time. We had a very early flight. I got a taxi to the clinic. I had the medical procedure and after the procedure I stayed in recovery for about an hour and then I had to get another flight back to Ireland.”

Anything but ideal conditions for the young woman, who goes on to tell Equal Times: “It then took me another three hours to get home from Dublin. I was feeling very unwell. And the fact of having to travel made what is already a very difficult decision all the more painful.”

In addition to the psychological impact and the impracticality of travelling, having to pay for an abortion procedure abroad is also very costly: women have to pay between €400 and €1800 (US$500-2250), not counting the cost of travel and potential accommodation, according to the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).

This can result in some women having to delay the procedure, for financial reasons, while others have to undergo surgical abortions, which are quicker and generally allow them to go home on the same day, although this is not always the most suitable option.

“The eighth amendment does not prevent abortions,” an IFPA spokesperson told Equal Times, “but it does place an extra burden on women who need access to it.” Worse still, it reinforces inequalities. “It not only discriminates against the women who don’t have the money but also those who don’t have papers.” For such women, travelling is obviously much more complicated in administrative terms.

As for the abortion pill, which is less expensive and seemingly sought-after (5650 women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are reported to have contacted the abortion rights website Women on Web between 2010 and 2015), it is also against the law. Although no one has as yet been prosecuted, it is an offence punishable, in theory, by 14 years in prison. As a result, it is taken without medical supervision, to the despair of health professionals.

“These pills are safe and effective when taken under medical supervision, as is the case in virtually every other country in Europe. However, when they are taken without medical supervision, there are significant risks,” Dr Peter Boylan, chairperson of the Irish Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said recently.

Convincing the public

As the referendum approaches, the pro-choice campaigners are stepping up their actions.

Mary is a co-founder of the Everyday Stories platform, which recounts the experiences of women who have aborted in spite of the difficulties faced in Ireland. Members of ROSA, a socialist feminist movement, have toured the country several times, with their ‘abortion pill bus’.

And a whole group of organisations recently joined forces to back the ‘Together for Yes’ campaign, determined to convince the Irish of the need to repeal the eighth amendment.

As the co-director of the campaign, Ailbhe Smyth, pointed out:

“Abortions happen.They happen here. That’s a fact. And we must put in place laws and services to respond compassionately and appropriately to women’s real life needs.”

It is not necessarily going to be an easy task. Despite scandals such as paedophilia within the Catholic Church, and recent social liberalisation in Ireland, the country continues to have a strong Catholic identity, observes Mary McAuliffe, a historian specialising in gender at University College Dublin.

A large anti-abortion demonstration was held in Dublin, for example, in March. Brandishing placards such as “Repeal Kills”, pro-lifers are intent on saving the eighth amendment, which, in their eyes, has helped to save lives.

Cora Sherlock of the Pro-Life Campaign believes that the alternatives to abortion, “life-saving alternatives to abortion”, such as adoption, have not been given adequate consideration.

For the moment, however, the polls are backing those supporting the right to abortion, indicating that around 50 per cent of voters, at least, favour the repeal, 20 to 30 per cent are against it and the rest are undecided.

For political analyst Noel Whelan, the issue could also be generational: “The biggest shift has been that younger voters are dramatically in favour of repealing the eighth amendment,” he says.

Gail McElroy, a professor at the School of Social Science and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, points to the importance of the month of May as an election period for the Irish government, which has to make sure that young people are still around to take part in the vote, if it wants the referendum to pass.

If the eighth amendment is repealed by the referendum, the government could present a bill to parliament proposing access to abortion without specific restrictions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

This story has been translated from French.