Abortion in Ireland: Is it time?

Barbara Soares

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There is no question that abortion is a sensitive topic in any part of the world. However, it is being discussed more often in Ireland; marches and protests have been growing concerning the issue.

Photographer: Sean Regan Model: BB Soares
Photographer: Sean Regan Model: BB Soares

The greatest controversy surrounding abortion in Ireland is the now infamous “X” case. In 1992, a 14-year-old rape victim (named only as “X” to protect her identity) tried to travel to England with her family for an abortion. Her parents, seeking justice, contacted the Gardai beforehand to ask if DNA from the aborted foetus would be admissible as evidence in the courts; because the rapist, a neighbour, was denying responsibility. However, abortion was totally illegal in Ireland and so the Gardai prevented her from having the procedure. The girl’s parents successfully appealed the court’s decision, giving her the right to travel to England for an abortion because of suicidal ideation. The girl miscarried shortly after the judgement.

Demonstrations were held in Dublin throughout the coverage of the “X” case, between February and March 1992, both by pro-life and pro-choice campaigners. In November of the same year, the Government put forward three possible amendments to the Constitution in a referendum. Irish women obtained the freedom to travel outside the country for an abortion, as well as making information available on abortion services. However, the amendment which would allow for an abortion in case of a risk of suicide was rejected (the same ruling as on the X case).

Another infamous abortion case in Ireland took place in October 2012. Savita Halappanavars, a dentist from India, died in an Irish hospital because she had not been allowed an abortion. Savita tried to get an abortion several times; she had severe back pain and was miscarrying. It was refused. The termination was not allowed because “Ireland is a Catholic country”, as the couple had been told. According to the Irish Times, an autopsy carried out two days after her death found she had died from septicaemia.

Nine months after the death of Savita Halappanavar, President Michael D Higgins signed off a new law, which provides women with the right to an abortion if her life is at risk, this also includes suicide.

Sad Woman - Photo Credit: the.mutator (Flicker)
Sad Woman – Photo Credit: the.mutator (Flicker)

In October 2015, Father Ted writer, Graham Linehan, and wife, Helen Linehan, decided to speak out about their abortion experience for the first time. The couple is supporting the campaign by Amnesty International, calling for decriminalisation of abortion in Ireland. Helen was carrying an 11-week-old that had a fatal impairment. The couple were living in the UK at that time, and the doctors suggested an abortion since the baby would not survive longer than an hour after birth. Helen took the medical advice and obtained an abortion.

Back in Ireland, months later, the couple discovered that if they had been living in Ireland during that episode, Helen would face a 14-year prison sentence for procuring an illegal abortion. She would have been forced to carry the child knowing it would die. In an Interview to ‘The Guardian’, in October 2015, Helen said, “In Ireland it is illegal to have an abortion, even in cases like ours where the foetus has a fatal impairment; even in cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Unless her life is in immediate danger, a woman faces up to 14 years in prison for having an abortion. These antiquated laws, enshrined in a constitution that was written for another time, bring suffering and sometimes even death to the thousands of women and girls they touch.” She concludes, ‘Ireland will never become a mature country until we move past this point. Women who need this form of healthcare are not criminals’.

In November 2015, Irish comedian Grainne Maguire decided to tweet her menstrual cycle to Enda Kenny, an Irish Fine Gael politician who has been the Taoiseach since March 2011. Her attitude was copied by some Irish women on twitter. Grainne said to the Irish Times, “So one day on the way to meet a friend I just thought, feck it. If the Government thinks my body is their business I’ll just take it at its word. I’ll live tweet my menstrual cycle to Enda Kenny. And in the past week as Ireland’s very own feminist cat bin lady, I have learnt so much”.

Nurse comforting female patient - Photo Credit: James Palinsad (flicker)
Nurse comforting female patient – Photo Credit: James Palinsad (flicker)

At the end of 2015, doctors from every region of the world signed an open letter to governments published in 20 November 2015, by Amnesty International. The letter warns that criminalising abortion puts women’s lives at risk. ‘The letter has been signed by some of the leading figures in Irish healthcare, which include Dr Peter Boylan, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street and Dr Veronica O’Keane, Professor in psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and consultant psychiatrist’. Dr Boylan said to The Irish Times, “Under the [current law] we must wait until women become sick enough before we can intervene. How close to death do you have to be? There is no answer to that.”

However, the Pro-Life campaign still strong, and it won’t be easy to change people’s mind in Ireland. Graham Lineham voiced his opinion about the possibility of an Irish referendum on abortion to ‘The Guardian’, September last year, “The fight for marriage equality is a fun, enjoyable, feelgood enterprise. In the fight for abortion, the road doesn’t lead anywhere nice. Abortion isn’t something that anyone wants, but you still have to fight for it. So it’s going to be difficult. But I don’t think Ireland can fully move on from its past, and the depressing things about how women were treated in Ireland, until they sort this one out”.

The Pro-Life Campaign in Ireland highlights on their website, “All human beings possess an equal and inherent worth simply by virtue of their humanity, and not on condition of their possessing other qualifications such as size or mental capacity.  Abortion deprives the most vulnerable among us of their lives. Without the right to life, all other rights are meaningless”. The Pro-Life campaigners have been doing more marches against the abortion since 2013. Caroline Simons, legal consultant to the Pro-Life Campaign believes that the push for more abortion has been growing. She said, “I sense there is a strong undercurrent of public revulsion at the way pro-choice groups sought to deny the humanity of the baby that is currently battling to survive and the fact that the Government’s abortion legislation could have been used to end the life of this defenceless baby at any stage in pregnancy right up to birth”.

Since the death of Savita Halappanavar’s the marches to allow a referendum on legalising abortion has been growing. In September 2015, thousands marched through Dublin to show their support to the pro-choice campaign.

A Rally In Dublin In Memory Of Savita - Photo Credit: William Murphy (flicker)
A Rally In Dublin In Memory Of Savita – Photo Credit: William Murphy (flicker)

Lucy, a young Irish adult, was one of those in that march in September. “In 2015, I had an abortion. I was not raped. There was no foetal abnormality. My life was not at risk. I was just a girl who was not ready to be a mother”.

Lucy said that the father was ‘by no means anything even close to a relationship and it was most certainly over’. She considered herself “nowhere near financially stable enough to provide for a child”; and added, “I’m not one for gambling, and to take such a risk with another life feels irresponsible”. The young Irish lady said it was a shock when she knew by her GP, since the couple had been careful and she was on the pill.

She travelled to England in June 2015, on her own, to have an abortion. “I await the guilt that I’ve been told by society to expect, but it never arrives. In the end, I’m thankful for the choice I made. What’s difficult is how alone my country has made me feel in it”. (Check it out Lucy’s full interview here). 

Many people considered the abortion issue when going to vote last February for the General Election. However, with the chance to another election in April, the polemic subject of an abortion referendum is more likely to be discussed in the following year, 2017. Until then, it is likely that we will see a continuation of the protests and marches concerning the issue.

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Barbara Soares