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Irish abortion seen through a global lens. By Cathie Doherty of Abortion Rights Campaign.

Ireland's abortion laws in perspective


When the gay marriage referendum passed in May, Ireland was hailed internationally as being “in the vanguard of equality”.

To go from being barely liberal enough to legalise divorce in 1996, years after most other European countries, to becoming the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage by popular vote in 2015 manifested a huge cultural change, and shows clearly that the Ireland of the 1980s was not the Ireland most people want to live in today. Shortly after the marriage referendum, a progressive Transgender Recognition Act was passed.

But despite progress on LGBT rights, our abortion laws continue to attract opprobrium internationally. Less than a month after the Marriage Equality victory, we suffered the international humiliation of being flagged by both the United Nations and Amnesty International as being out of line with international human rights standards.

We’re not good at talking about abortion in Ireland. Alongside the march for choice, the Abortion Rights Campaign also organise an annual ‘Speak-Out’: a space where women who have obtained an abortion legally or illegally share their experiences. Irish society’s failure to engage in a realistic conversation about abortion means a staunch anti-abortion minority is given a platform, from where they shame into silence the tens of thousands of women who have left Ireland to get abortions.

Women at our Speak-Out often haven’t even told their GP about the procedure, never mind their friends or family. It’s considered impolite to bring it up socially, and there’s a deafening sound of silence at the top: when the recently asked TDs if they would personally favour repealing the eighth amendment, most of them declined to answer.

If we’re not talking about our own abortion laws, the international community certainly is. Media giant Vice recently established ‘Broadly’, a women’s interest channel. Its website published a long and stringent feature on Ireland’s abortion laws in August. Its entirely verifiable claims that “bizarre demonstrations involving sellotape as a metaphor for the dangers of sexual activity are permitted [in Irish schools], but workshops to prevent homophobic bullying are not” in effect make us look ridiculous.

International coverage of the Ms Y case makes us look inhumane. The Independent in the UK wrote of Ms Y saying she: “thought she’d finally reached safety…[after she was] kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the head of a paramilitary organisation…she didn’t know that her new home’s draconian abortion laws were going to trap her into having a baby she didn’t ask for, and drive her to the point of suicide”.

Guardian columnist, Jessica Valenti, has noted how “Ireland’s laws are torturing women”, and Ireland is being referenced in stories about Paraguay’s recent case where a ten-year-old was raped by her stepfather and had a forced C-section: “It doesn’t just happen over there”. In articles about Republican misogyny in the upcoming US election Ireland’s inhumane abortion laws get another mention: “As Irish doctors did in the tragic Savita Halapannavar case, you could always let both [mother and fetus] die”.

Many Irish people are unaware that to seek an abortion in Ireland carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years. To put that in context, if a woman is raped and seeks an abortion, she could spend more than twice as long in prison as her attacker (rape sentences tend to be five to seven years, according to the recently defunded Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, or nothing at all sometimes, even if you confess). Perhaps one of the most concerning things about this fourteen-year sentence is that it isn’t a legacy from previous generations – it was brought in in 2013.

Certainly in Iceland, they are aware. At the end of August, the Icelandic branch of Amnesty International staged a protest, their members sitting in cages in prison clothing with placards saying “Ireland change your abortion laws!”

The Ipsos/Mori poll in the Irish Times last year records very strong majorities in favour of abortion in the case of risk to the women’s life (89%), health (78%), fatal foetal abnormality (83%), and rape and abuse (81%), and a small majority (52%) in the event or a threat of suicide. 81% of Irish people want to expand the grounds for legal abortion in Ireland, while 67% of us favour complete decriminalisation.

Only 7% believe abortion should never be permitted.

Abortion became criminal in the 1980s, when Ireland was a very different place, when fear of the church meant we overwhelmingly did (and voted) as we were instructed, regardless of our own wishes.

In 1992 and in 2002 we came out to the polls again, and motions to remove the threat of suicide as legal grounds for an abortion were defeated.

When Ireland’s abortion laws are discussed internationally it reflects badly on all of us who live here. Articles aren’t written along the lines of: “A Hindu woman was killed in Ireland for a Catholic law, which most Irish people don’t support”. Rather the law not the popular will is what is judged, internationally. For abortion we find ourselves on a par with many countries we like to consider ourselves ahead of in social freedoms.

Such coverage isn’t dying down: Savita Halappanavar’s unnecessary death in 2012 hasn’t made it out of the news three years later, and in the last few weeks alone, ARC has been contacted by journalists, politicians and activists from France, Iceland, the US, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, and the Arabic network, Al Jazeera, and more.

A delegation from the European Parliamentary Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM committee) has chosen to use one of their European Parliamentary ‘Turquoise weeks’ to visit Ireland, to discuss the issues of women and austerity. This visit comes after a vote from the FEMM committee in June that supported a report by MEP Maria Noichl which highlighted the unequal effect of austerity on women, and recommended improved provision of services to single parents and disabled women, a road-map for LGBT people, and improved access to assisted reproduction, abortion, and sex education. This visit gestures at the outstanding areas of gender inequality written into law in Ireland, and the need for a move from conversation to action to improve the lives of people in this country.

We have a rich and varied cultural heritage and are one of the top countries in Europe for educational standards, according to the PISA tests. For a small country, we punch above our weight on so many levels, but our lack of progress on abortion leads to horror stories.

The Abortion Rights Campaign’s fourth annual March for Choice, this year on the 26th September, is our chance to show the international community that Irish people do not condone the laws which have given us such bad press, and to loudly call for progress. The first March for Choice took place in 2012 and has grown in numbers, year upon year. This year we will be joined by a multitude of international visitors on the day. Our theme, “Choose your future”, highlights ARC’s core value – that every person should have the right to make their own choices.

It also reflects the fact that this is our last march before the next general election – concentrating minds on making informed electoral choices. •

Cathy Doherty is spokesperson for the Abortion Rights Campaign