Monday, May 6, 2013

A Brief History of Abortion in Ireland

This week, I've started to think if I never heard the word "abortion" again, I'd be a happy camper. I've been avoiding listening to the radio and watching television in an attempt to avoid the subject. Meanwhile, I've been spending most of my free time on the Abortion Rights Campaign. You might be wondering why. Well, Ireland's history with abortion is much much MUCH different than other countries.

For myself and for my readers, here's a quick and dirty recap of the history of abortion in Ireland:
  • The 1861 Offences Against The Person Act revised an earlier act of 1828 that made raping, assaulting, and killing a crime. They specifically include obtaining or helping someone to "procure a miscarriage", no matter what the reason.
For those of you who don't know your Irish history, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom then. So this law from 1861 was actually a British law. Then there was a war of independence, and the Irish Free State was created, followed by the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1949. (I include this information because an embarrassing number of Americans slept through this bit of world history class. p.s. Northern Ireland is still part of the UK.) While the UK has repealed the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 (abortion is legal in England, Scotland, and Wales up to 24 weeks), it's still on the books in Ireland, both north and south.
  • In 1983, abortion just wasn't illegal enough for Irish politicians, probably because it was becoming legal elsewhere, so they decided to amend the Irish Constitution so that it would never become legal in the future. "There won't be any Roe v. Wade nonsense in our country!" they said. And so the Eighth Amendment was passed. It meant that it was also illegal for a woman to travel to another country for an abortion. It was even against the law to tell a pregnant woman in Ireland where she could seek an abortion in another country.
  • Also in 1983, a woman named Sheila Hodgers was allegedly refused cancer treatment, even painkillers, because she was pregnant. Despite repeated requests for an abortion, she was refused. She went into premature labour; the baby died immediately. Hodgers died three days later.
  • 1992 saw the horrific Attorney General vs. X case in which the Supreme Court decided that a pregnant woman could have an abortion to save her life, including from suicide. But that didn't make abortion in any way available here for women. No guidelines were created. Abortion training for doctors was not implemented. And so in reality the ruling was kind of null. 
But the X case ruling really scared anti-choicers into thinking that even the 8th Amendment didn't restrict abortion enough. "What kind of malarky is suicide?" they said! "Anyone can say they're suicidal! That's not a real threat to a woman's life!"
  • In 1992, the anti-choicers tried to get more Constitutional amendments to exclude suicide as a threat to a woman's life by putting it out to vote in a referendum. The people of Ireland voted that suicide should not be excluded.
  • Also in 1992, the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Irish Constitution were passed. The former decreed that women could travel for abortions, and the latter made it legal to give information on abortion in other countries.
  • 2002, another attempt to exclude suicide in a referendum and increase penalties for helping a woman get an abortion, which failed. 
  • A woman, "D", with twins in 2001 learned that one of the foetuses had died in the womb and the other had Edwards Syndrome, which is almost always fatal. She travelled for an abortion, and in 2006 filed a case against Ireland with the European Court of Human Rights. It was dismissed because she didn't take it to the Irish High Court first.
  • 2005-2010: A, B, C vs. Ireland: Three women brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights. There's a lot of legal mumbo jumbo that I won't go into, but here's the gist:  A, B, and C were three women who had travelled for abortions. Each of them suffered from complications afterwards and received inadequate follow-up care in Ireland. Most of their claims were dismissed. But the EU Court of Human Rights found that Ireland had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by not putting anything in place where a woman who qualifies for a legal abortion can actually get one or even go about getting one. (Why is access to abortion a Human Rights issue? Explanation here.) 
You'd think that the ruling would have spurred the government into action to legislate on abortion in the case of the mother's life, but nope.
  • 2007: Miss D, a 17-year-old-girl whose foetus suffered from anencephaly (missing part of the brain, skull, scalp) wasn't allowed by the Health Service Executive to travel for an abortion. It went to the high court, and she won the right to travel.
  • An "expert group" was charged by the Irish government in January 2012 to make recommendations on "how to implement the judgement" in the A, B, C vs. Ireland case from 2010. The 14 men and women are general practitioners, psychiatrists, solicitors, Ob/Gyns, and other medical personel.
  • In June 2012, an Irish group (heavily funded from the US) named "Youth Defence" started a billboard, poster, and flyer campaign "Abortion tears her life apart," claiming that "there's always a better answer." 
  • October 2012: Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman living in Ireland, miscarried in a Galway hospital. She repeatedly asked for a termination and was refused. By way of explanation, one of the midwives told her that Ireland is a Catholic country, therefore her pregnancy could not be terminated while the heartbeat was still present. She died a few days later from septicemia and organ failure.
  • TD Clare Daly proposed a bill called "Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in Case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Woman) Bill" in November 2012. It was defeated, 100 to 27.
  • November 2012: the "Expert" group's recommendations were published. They outlined four options: 1. Non-statutory guidelines, 2. Statutory guidelines, 3. Legislation, 4. Legislation plus regulations with the pros and cons of each.
  • An inquest of Ms. Halappanavar's death was held in April 2013, when it was decided that she died from "medical misadventure." 
  • May 2013: The "Heads"of a Bill called "Protection of Life" is published. It has to go through nine stages to become law. According to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, this won't change the law. According to everyone else, this will SO change the law. 
Let's look at the proposed Bill. Anti-choice people think it's terrible because it will supposedly "open the floodgates" of abortion, while pro-choice people think it's terrible because it criminalises abortion in Ireland even more than the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act did, and makes it so difficult to obtain a legal abortion, it won't make a difference to a great number of people to whom it applies.
  1. If you're ill, say from cancer, and being pregnant prevents you from getting treatment, and therefore could lead to your death, you may have a legal abortion if an Ob/Gyn and another doctor say it's ok.
  2. If you're about to die and it's time sensitive, one doctor can make the call.
  3. If you are about to die from "self-destruction" ie suicide, first off, you have to be lucky enough to be somewhere registered by the Mental Health Commission where there happens to be an Ob/Gyn who can perform an abortion AND TWO psychiatrists. If one of those three people doesn't think you're suicidal enough, have no fear, you soon will be. Because to appeal their decision, you have to be evaluated by another Ob/Gyn and two more psychiatrists. Oh, and that process takes two weeks, so good luck not jumping off a bridge.
  4. If you're found guilty of having obtained the abortion pill yourself, and having taken it in Ireland, you will face 14 years in prison. Think that's depressing? Get this: The average rape sentence in Ireland is 5-7 years. So if you are raped and get the abortion pill illegally, you could spend twice as long in jail as your rapist. 
Let's say a woman took the abortion pill and she's having complications. She's bleeding or she has signs of infection. But she's scared of being sent to jail for terminating her pregnancy. So she doesn't seek medical attention, or she lies to them. That woman may not receive the proper treatment. You can see how this bill that's supposed to protect life actually has the potential to do a lot of harm to women's health.

But great news, ladies! We can still travel! Well, not those of us who can't afford it. Or who asylum seekers who can't leave the country. Or undocumented citizens who can't leave. Or women in abusive relationships who are under the control of their partners. Or women who have no one to look after their children. 

So that's where we're at now. If you'd like to donate, get updates from, or get involved in the Abortion Rights Campaign, click HERE. If you'd like to contact your TD, click HERE for a handy tool to find out who your TDs are. And if you are anti-choice and have a comment to make, I don't mind saying that it won't be published, so don't waste your time.


  1. Thank you so much for this! I stumbled upon it in the middle of doing a research project on abortion in Ireland and pro-choice movements and it has been monumentally helpful

  2. Nice Info! This is very informative blog so those women who wants to get an abortion can read it.

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