The Irish government has announced that they plan on holding a national referendum in May or June 2018 on Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. The referendum would ask whether Ireland should change the eighth amendment of the constitution in order to allow abortions in cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, or inevitable miscarriage. In fact, the Irish Citizens Assembly heard accounts and submissions from thousands of people before recommending a change in the constitution to allow for an unrestricted access to abortion up to twelve weeks of pregnancy; nevertheless, changes to the constitution can only be made through a public referendum.
The referendum comes on the heels of national and global outrage after Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis in 2012 because she was denied an abortion, as doctors claimed the fetus still had a heartbeat, despite the fact that the fetus would not survive to term. This prompted the passage of Ireland’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013.
Currently, abortion is only legal in Ireland if the life of the mother is in an immediate danger – including suicide – which gives equal right of life to both the mother and unborn child. According to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, this law is both too vague and “too restrictive”, as women can be fined up to 14 years in jail if they have been convicted of having an abortion. However, after an amendment to the law in 1992, women are free to travel abroad to have an abortion and receive information about it. Almost 4000 women on average travel abroad – mostly to Britain – for abortion services.
In fact, these strict laws are the result of a continued influence from the Roman Catholic church in Ireland, which advocated heavily for the initial 1983 total ban on abortion. Nevertheless, while the church maintains a steady presence in Ireland, scandals have weakened its influence on the Irish public opinion and demographics; while many in the country are Catholic, they do not look to the church on issues such as same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and abortion.
Continually, more and more people in Ireland support changing the law and allowing abortion in the cases of rape, fetal abnormalities resulting in death, and a serious risk to the mental and/or physical health of the mother. However, up to 75% of people polled by Behaviour and Attitudes for the Sunday Times did not support abortion on request or for any other reasons. Therefore, proposed changes in the law would need to appeal to both liberal and conservative sides of the socio-political landscape, which makes it unlikely that unrestricted access to abortion would be made legal.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has previously called Ireland’s abortion laws cruel, inhumane, and degrading towards women, along with being a huge strain on their physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Ireland has some of the most restrictive laws regarding abortion in the Western world. Most Western countries allow either unrestricted access to safe and legal abortion services or else allow abortion in the cases of rape, incest, fetal abnormality, inevitable miscarriage, or risk of health/life to the mother. According to a 2015 Pew Research Centre Survey based off of data collected by the UN in 2013, of 196 countries, only six do not allow abortion under any circumstances. Of these 190 countries, 50 only allow abortion if the mother’s life is at risk. Only 58 countries allow abortion for any reason, with the cut-off gestation period typically lying within 12-20 weeks.
While this proposed change is an important step for women’s rights, it still does not give women a complete control to make choices about their own bodies. Moreover, based on existing public opinion, it is unlikely that the Irish referendum would ask about allowing unrestricted access to abortion, which further constricts women’s rights. Additionally, the concept of granting a group of people civil rights via a referendum that is based entirely on public opinion does not seem to be adequate or fair – particularly in this case, in which half of the voting public is male (based on 2016 census records). A change of the law also does not negate the stigma surrounding abortion and women who have abortions, and this can be a major impediment to the mental health of many women. However, change has to start somewhere, and the changes that are made today can help lay the groundwork for women’s rights in Ireland.
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