Abortion in Ireland: Are times changing?
Ireland’s eighth amendment states that the right to life a fetus and the life of a mother during pregnancy are equal. As a result, abortion is effectively banned in almost all circumstances making access to abortion in Ireland severely restricted. In addition, if convicted of obtaining an illegal abortion in Ireland, women in Ireland may face up to 14 years in prison. As a result, on average, 12 women a day travel to Great Britain to access abortion services. With the emergence of Women on Web, more women in Ireland have also turned to obtaining online abortion pills through the online telemedicine clinic. Last year, a study published in the British Medical Journal, found that these pills had “high effectiveness rates,” and “few reported adverse outcomes.”
Nonetheless access to abortion services in Ireland remains severely restricted. In recent years, several cases of women being denied abortion care in Ireland have made the news. The UN Human Rights Committee has also ruled twice that the current abortion laws in Ireland are “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” These cases, along with a shift in public opinion, have led Irish lawmakers to begin to rethink the eighth amendment.
The first change to Irish abortion policy was in 2013, when the complete ban on abortion in Ireland was lifted. Since then public opinion has continued to be more supportive for increasing access to abortion. Last month after hearing expert testimony, a cross-parliamentary committee recommended that the law in Ireland be changed to allow abortions with no restrictions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. In response a recent poll found that 56% would vote in favor of changing the constitution to allow abortion up to 12 weeks.
Most recently the Irish government announced that a referendum on the issue will be held in May of this year. To pass, the referendum must be supported by a majority of voters. If passed, the Parliament would then write a new abortion law, which would have to be approved by both houses of Ireland’s Parliament. While the exact wording of the law will be debated, at this time the Minister of Health is preparing a law that would follow the cross-parliamentary committee’s recommendation that abortion be available up to 12 weeks. In addition, the bill would provide gestation exceptions for cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormality.
This will be a historic referendum on abortion for a country with deep Catholic roots. The current Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, has already stated that he will help campaign for changing the eighth amendment, and indicated that his views on abortion have evolved, and that the current law is too restrictive. Leading up to May, parliament members and advocates will be working to engage and inform voters about the upcoming referendum, and all will be watching to see if 45 year amendment will finally be repealed.