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Abortion: Yardstick of our moral cowardice

Women still travel abroad for abortions but it is unclear if abortions to save women’s lives are ever carried out in Ireland
Ivana Bacik, Labour Senator for Trinity College

Abortion was legalised in Britain in 1967. Since then, thousands of women have travelled from Ireland to clinics in London and Liverpool to obtain abortions denied to them at home. Irish law on abortion is the most restrictive in Europe. Abortion is a criminal offence under 1861 legislation, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

In 1983, our Constitution was amended to make the right to life of ‘the unborn’ equal to that of ‘the mother’. This made our law even more restrictive; a pregnancy may only be terminated legally in order to save the life of the pregnant woman. There is no right to abortion in any other circumstance; even where a woman or girl has been raped or abused, or is carrying a non-viable foetus.

Despite this highly repressive law, abortion is a reality in Ireland. More than 100,000 Irish women and girls have had abortions over the last forty years. Yet these women’s stories are never told publicly in Ireland. The cultural taboo on speaking out about abortion and crisis pregnancy has been strengthened by the intimidatory tactics of the anti-choice campaigners. Abortion represents their last line of defence, since contraception and divorce were legalised in the 1990s. These conservative lobbyists have brought disproportionate influence to bear on fearful politicians.

Following the 1983 Amendment, anti-abortion groups took a series of court cases which had the effect of closing down women’s counselling centres, depriving women of the right to receive information on where to obtain abortion abroad. Across Ireland, students’ unions became the only organisations willing to publicly provide information about how to access abortion in Britain.

As President of Trinity Students’ Union in 1989-90, I carried out Union policy by giving information on abortion to women with crisis pregnancies. As a result I and others were threatened with prison by SPUC (the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) in a marathon court case. Mary Robinson (later elected President of Ireland) stepped in to defend us, and we were not sent to prison, but we lost our case initially and were threatened with bankruptcy.

Since our case was taken, some change has occurred as a result of the 1992 X case. This arose when a 14 year-old pregnant rape victim, known only as X, tried to travel to England with her parents to terminate her pregnancy. The State tried to prevent her travelling abroad in order to stop her having the abortion. People were understandably horrified at this inhumane response to the girl’s crisis. Following the public outcry that followed, the Supreme Court ruled that because X was suicidal, the pregnancy posed a real and substantial risk to her life, so her pregnancy could lawfully be terminated under the 1983 amendment.

As a result of the X case, two further amendments to the Constitution were passed in November 1992. The first allowed the freedom of information, and enabled us, finally, to win our long-running legal case. The second referendum allowed the right to travel for women seeking abortions. The Government also proposed a third referendum, seeking to overturn the X case by ruling out suicide risk as a ground for abortion, but thankfully this was defeated.

In 2002, following more pressure from anti-abortion groups, the Government sought to pass yet another referendum to try and rule out suicide risk as a ground for abortion – but again this was defeated after a strong campaign by the Labour Party and pro-choice groups.

Since then, the law has remained stagnant. Women continue to travel to Britain in their thousands, and no statistics exist on whether abortions are ever carried out in Ireland to save women’s lives. To try and bring about change, activists in Ireland have established the Safe and Legal (in Ireland) abortion rights campaign (SLI), which is supporting an important case currently being taken by three women, A, B and C, against Ireland before the European Court of Human Rights. The legal case centres on the women’s argument that their human rights were breached because they were forced to travel abroad for abortions. This is the first direct challenge to Irish abortion law before the European court, and it could bring about radical legal change. The case was heard before the Strasbourg Court this month, and a judgment is awaited.

The SLI campaign is also working towards the legalisation of abortion generally. Opinion polls show that support for legal abortion has increased significantly in recent years. As Irish society has changed and liberalised, most people have become more accepting of the need to legalise abortion.

The only thing that has not changed is the lack of courage and leadership demonstrated by successive Governments on abortion. Indeed, the Supreme Court has been highly critical of the failure to pass laws regulating reproductive health. Eighteen years ago, judges called for legislators to clarify the law on abortion in the X case. Just this month, in a case taken by a woman seeking to implant her frozen embryos, Judge Fennelly commented similarly that the ongoing failure to legislate on assisted human reproduction issues was ‘disturbing’.

This cowardice by legislators is due to a fear of appearing controversial; a fear of stirring up the anger of the once-powerful anti-abortion movement. But I believe that times have changed and the conservative lobby are losing ground. Now is the time to challenge the culture of silence and hypocrisy. We must press the Government to confront the reality of crisis pregnancy, and to meet the real health needs of women by legalising abortion in Ireland.