Criminalization Of Abortion In Ireland As A Social Justice Issue


As the referendum for whether or not to legalize abortion in Ireland is coming to an end on Friday, Ireland is expecting a historic decision that has divided the Irish electorates for decades.

Ever since the Irish Government confirmed the referendum on May 25th, 2018, the “yes” and “no” campaigners have been campaigning through various platforms: such as posting hashtags on social media, protesting, distributing flyers, and attaching signs on street lamps to express their opinions.

The referendum is in response to the haunting debate on the Eighth Amendment that was inserted into the Constitution in 1983 after a referendum. The Eighth Amendment states: “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.” It was set to protect and respect the rights to life of an unborn child by illegalizing abortion with almost no exceptions, even in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality, and even severe risk to the woman’s health. The consequence following the amended constitution are shocking: according to the Department of Health for England and Wales, a total of 168,705 women traveled to the UK for terminations from 1980 to 2016.Ireland’s abortion laws are considered to be one of the most conservative and strict abortion laws among the European nations .

The “yes” campaigners, those in favor of repealing the amendment, argue that making abortion illegal restricts their freedom to choose whether to be a parent or not, while the “no” campaigners cite morals and religions and argue that abortion is taking the life of the unborn, it is in essence murder and killing of life. Each campaign in the debate has been accusing the other side of exploiting women’s personal tragedies and claims their own side as protecting human rights.

The exit poll published by The Irish Times on Friday night suggests that the mass largely supported the appeal, with 68% on the yes side and 32% on the no side. While the counting of votes is underway, many have expressed that they are expecting a change in Irish history.

The discussion on the liberalization process in Ireland could not avoid talking about the church. Ever since its independence from Britain in 1922, the Roman Catholic Church has a monopoly on many issues in Irish history including health, social policy, sexual morality, and education. Ireland has undergone a series of debates on gay marriage, divorce, contraception, the sale of condoms, etc, but it is still in the process of defining itself, and its people are eager to learn from some of their experience and from other countries, including the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, who was refused an abortion and eventually died from sepsis, an infection of the blood after miscarriage.

As the campaigns are underway, many have noticed the unusual low-key role of the church on the issue. While the church is apparently against the appeal on the abortion issue, they remain quiet in the campaigns, possibly due to a series of scandals of priests sexually abusing children and church-run homes for unmarried mothers, who were forced to give up their children for adoptions.

In spite of their silence, Ireland is largely a religious country and has its religious root in many respects. When the ban on abortations was passed in 1983,  93% of the Irish described themselves as Catholic back in 1981 while that figure had fallen to 78% by 2016, according to an article on the Wall Street Journal. The increasing support for the yes side reflects the increasing resistance to religious grounds by the public, especially among younger generations, who have witnessed the church’s corruption and the effect of a rigid religious hierarchy that has kept the country conservative for decades.

The religious roots might be a huge burden in deciding whether or not to legalize abortion, the fact surrounding the issue, however, is not religion or personal belief, but part of women’s health care that reflects the nation’s social injustice and human rights issue. The issue should be discussed in de-contextualized setting. The point is to have access to abortion, to have a choice to decide whether or not to be a parent and to make one’s own choice without social discrimination, but not to encourage murder and violate moral norms.

Making abortion illegal will not reduce the incidence of abortion but only creates a harsher environment for women’s pregnancy and reduces the ability to have a safe abortion and increases the risk of potential trauma or death. Under the banning on abortion, women are forced to travel to other countries to seek legal terminations. Their way back home is not guaranteed, their rights and dignity as an individual are not protected by their motherland. Instead, they will be punished and discriminated by the law.

Criminalization of abortion is a social justice issue in the sense that it restricts women’s access to healthy sexuality and safe termination of unwanted pregnancy. The United Nations has been calling for revoking the abortion law in Ireland to prevent further violations of human rights. The nature of the appeal is not to encourage murders of the unborn child, but to protect women’s basic human rights. To criminalize and stigmatize women for their reproductive choices and their sexuality restrict their choice as an individual, women should have the right to choose

The future of children born from unwanted pregnancy due to rape or forced marriage cannot be protected. Legalizing abortion could reduce the unnecessary practice of travel abroad, unsafe abortion, and suffering from discrimination. But simply legalizing abortion is not enough. The government should draft a series of guidelines and a new abortion legislation that articulates a safe abortion procedure and creates an indiscriminative environment for women to choose their own path. The suffering from unsafe abortion is preventable only when it is legalized. Abortion should be made legal, safe, affordable, and accessible to every woman, it should not be burdened by religious grounds, race, gender, or economic status. They are not practices that violate moral norms, but part of the necessary construction towards a socially just society.