After a long and arduous process, the Irish Parliament’s upper house has voted to repeal the country’s ban on abortion. The landmark decision will allow all women unrestricted access to abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In cases of fatal fetal abnormalities and serious risks to a woman’s life, abortion can be performed any time during the pregnancy. The new bill will now be signed into law by President Michael D. Higgins in January 2019. It will change the lives of countless women in Ireland who have suffered under the previous law.
The vote to repeal the ban on abortion first passed in Parliament’s lower house on December 5th with 90 votes in favour, 15 against and 12 abstentions. Following this, debates in the upper house continued all day on Thursday, December 13th, before another vote in favour of the bill passed. The vote was held as a result of a nationwide referendum held in May 2018, that asked citizens whether the ban on abortion should be repealed. A two-thirds majority voted “yes”, signaling the decline of the Catholic Church’s influence, and a shift towards a more progressive and liberal Irish society.
However, despite the victory of women’s rights and elimination of stigmas that the new bill represents, there are many who find too many flaws in the new law. Amongst them is Amnesty International Ireland’s Executive Director, Colm O’Gorman. He has said that while the new law is welcome, the organization has “serious concerns that barriers to women accessing timely care remain,” due to the “significant flaws” of the bill. Their chief concern is the vague language surrounding what constitutes “serious harm” to a woman: the precedent for non-fatal but serious fetal impairment, criminalization of doctors, the mandatory three-day waiting period before the abortion after first seeing a doctor, and the difficulties for many women to arrange to see a doctor more than once.
Calls for changes to Ireland’s abortion ban strengthened in 2012, after the death of Savita Halappanavar due to sepsis, she was denied an abortion despite the fact that she already miscarried during her first pregnancy. Her death caused an outrage both in Ireland and across the world, creating a tipping point in the fight for the women’s rights in Ireland and producing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013. Prior to this year, abortion was absolutely illegal. The Irish government banned all abortions in 1983, after the heavy lobbying from the Catholic Church. Only in 1992, abortion was allowed as an exception in extreme cases. The ban did not stop women from illegally buying abortion pills online. It also didn’t stop doctors from administering abortions to women in life-threatening situations, or nearly 3000 women who annually traveled to Britain to receive an abortion in recent years.
The new law will have a positive profound effect on a large number of women, and will hopefully bolster women’s reproductive rights not only in Ireland, but around the world, as more countries begin to acknowledge the importance of a woman’s right to her own body. However, concerns about some obscure wording in the new law and obstacles that the law still presents for women must be addressed, if the law is to adequately cater to all women. Unless this is the case, abortion laws in Ireland will still continue to disadvantage some women, even as it comes as a welcome change to many others.
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