X Case protests in 1992

A History of Ireland’s Abortion Laws

The Fourth Annual March for Choice takes place this Saturday September 26th. In the lead up to the march, Kate Doran takes a look at Ireland’s abortions laws over the years, examines the harm they have repeatedly caused women, and tells us why we should all be marching this weekend.

Since 1861, abortion in Ireland had been illegal under the Offences Against the Person Act. At this time, Irish women could not vote. In 1983, an amendment was passed by referendum, with a 67% majority. This was the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. It was put in place to stop abortion from being legalised in the future due to fear brought on by the American Supreme Court legalising a woman’s right to privately seek abortion. Today, some thirty years on, that legislation still affects the decisions made by government officials. What makes this law exceptional is the controversy that surrounds it. The amendment states that:

“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.”

This legislation was passed and brought into being before I was born. Today, many criticise – as they did when it was first created – the vague wording of the document, claiming that it is poor judgement to afford equal rights to both mother and foetus.

Pro-choice - HeadStuff.orgIn 1992, Ireland saw two more amendments to the constitution pass. Both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Constitutional Amendments allowed for freedom of speech and travel in abortion cases. This meant a woman could legally avail of information on abortion in Ireland and could also travel outside the country to procure one. Last year, up to 3,769 women travelled abroad to terminate pregnancies. Over the past two decades, as many as 150,000 women have sought abortions outside of Ireland. Today, their experiences are predominately ignored by members of the Irish government. However, some cases did receive a great deal of recognition.

In 1992, the “X case” gained a lot of attention from the national and international press. The case involved the rape of a 14-year-old school girl, who subsequently fell pregnant, and was forced to travel abroad to receive an abortion after losing a court battle. The case was brought to the Irish Supreme Court afterwards, and was won. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling that abortion could take place in cases where there was a real risk to the life of the mother was not added to the legislation until 2013.

Another case that received major media coverage was the passing of 31-year-old dentist Savita Praveen Halappanavar in 2012. The Indian woman suffered a miscarriage and was brought to University Hospital Galway, where she contracted septicaemia and died. Pro-choice groups campaigned due to the fact that Savita had been repeatedly refused a termination. Her mother spoke out against the country’s abortion laws, stating that “In an attempt to save a 4-month-old foetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter.” Again, this caused public outcry for the government to repeal the Eighth Amendment on the grounds that it equates the life of a woman to that of an unborn foetus.

When the Protection Of Life During Pregnancy Act came into force in 2013, some saw it as the solution to the long contested abortion legislation. The Act permits a termination to occur if:

The Mother’s life is at risk from a physical illness.

The Mother’s life is at risk during an emergency.

There is a clear risk of suicide.

Unfortunately, as the “Miss Y” case would later demonstrate, this act had its faults too. That same year, a young woman seeking asylum in Ireland discovered that she was eight weeks pregnant. She had been a victim of rape in her home country. She sought an abortion and was promised one until it was determined that her pregnancy had advanced too far. Miss Y was then deemed to be at risk of suicide. When she was 26 weeks pregnant, she received a caesarean section to remove the child. The child survived and was taken into care. Miss Y is now planning subsequent legal actions against the state bodies involved. Independent TD Clare Daly brought up this case to Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar, when explaining the need for further abortion reforms. In his response, he stated that there should be “a real debate and a genuine attempt to find a consensus.”

Savita Halappanavar - HeadStuff.orgEven though Varadkar is anti-choice, he finds the current Eighth Amendment abortion legislation too restrictive. Polls taken in July have shown a genuine public interest for changes to the harsh and strict abortion legislation. The most recent poll carried out by RED C Research and Marketing on behalf of Amnesty International found that out of 1,000 persons interviewed 67% agreed that abortion should be decriminalised. A whopping 81% of people were in favour of widening the grounds for legal abortion access in Ireland. However, less than one in ten surveyed knew that there was a maximum 14 year penalty prison sentence if a woman or healthcare provider is found guilty of receiving, or providing, an illegal abortion.

In May of this year, after the monumental success of the equality marriage referendum, Taoiseach Enda Kenny ruled out a referendum to repeal the controversial 1983 Amendment. According to the Irish Times he stated:

“There will not be a referendum on this issue in the lifetime of this government  […] I do not believe in abortion on demand, but there are very sensitive stories in respect of fatal foetal abnormalities and other issues.”

In June of this year, Ireland was publically chastised by the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, over our failure to find a solution to the abortion controversy, and protect citizen’s rights previously outlined by the Committee. Committee member Ms. Heisoo Shin criticised how the foetus inside of a woman is given precedence even when the woman’s health is under threat. The state has been asked to review existing abortion laws especially in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality.

Pro-choice - HeadStuff.orgPerhaps Mr Kenny (who is, of course, anti-choice) will have to bring about reform sooner than he expected. Perhaps he won’t have to bring about reform at all! With so many women speaking out about their experiences – and so many pro-choice advocates expressing their disinterest in voting for a Party who does not tackle the issue before the next election – maybe Enda simply won’t have the chance to act. And maybe, he should have considered that “abortion on demand” doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, before making such blatantly offensive and reductive comments.

I still have my own personal issues with abortion, but that’s exactly what they are – personal. I adamantly believe that every woman has the right to do what she deems fit with her own body, and should be allowed full access to medical care wherever she may live. Irish public opinion is changing. Our government must accommodate and work towards creating laws which facilitate that change. These laws must respect the choices of women, and they must must reflect the fact that women can be, and should be, trusted.

Now is the time to seek change. Now is the time to act. As Clare Daly said: “Nobody of a present reproductive age has had a chance to vote on this matter.’’ And I for one, would like to rectify that.

The fourth annual March for Choice takes place this Saturday September 26th at 1:30pm in the Garden of Remembrance. 


Images via irishcentral.com