Niall Carson / PA / AP

In Ireland, abortion debate takes center stage

Once a taboo subject, abortion – and the ban on it – is fast becoming a major issue in the run-up to Irish elections

This is the first in a two-part series about the controversy surrounding the abortion ban in Ireland. The second part, about foreign influence in this debate, can be read here

DUBLIN — On a Saturday in September, more than 170 feminists, unionists, doctors, lawyers and activists gathered before a stage in a large unmarked room in Dublin’s Gresham Hotel to spend the day discussing abortion. That morning, Róisín Ingle, a high-profile columnist, outed herself in The Irish Times as having undergone the procedure. “My experience is not something strange or unique or uncommon,” she wrote in an essay that was lauded and condemned for its candor. “It is something many other women in Ireland and around the world can relate to: I had an abortion. I am glad I did.”

Once the ultimate taboo, all but banished from newspapers and polite discussion, abortion is becoming an increasingly ubiquitous talking point in Ireland. Calls for the repeal of a 32-year-old constitutional ban are being heard from protesters, actors and artists, Amnesty International and even the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As Ireland prepares for its next general election in early 2016, the question of abortion rights is shaping up as a major fight in a year that has already seen seismic social change since the legal acceptance of same-sex marriage in May.

At the center of the debate is the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s Constitution.

The Eighth Amendment acknowledges a mother’s right to life, but also extends an equal right to life to the unborn child and promises to “defend and vindicate that right.” This rule, which was influenced by Catholic doctrine and effectively bans abortion, has caused considerable confusion since it was introduced in 1983. In 2013, under pressure from the EU Court of Human Rights, the Irish legislature passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in an attempt to provide a clear legal framework for dealing with abortion. Today the procedure is outlawed in all circumstances except when the mother’s life is at risk, including by suicide. Obtaining or assisting an abortion in Ireland for any other reason — not only for personal choice but also for rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality — comes with the threat of a 14-year prison sentence.

From 1980 to 2014, at least 161,987 women visited England or Wales to obtain an abortion.

Opponents of the Eighth Amendment argue that the laws create a chilling effect on medical professionals who are afraid of being prosecuted. Under current legislation, if a woman checks into a hospital suffering from an illness that could be alleviated by abortion, doctors can perform one only if they’re “satisfied [the patient is] at risk of dying,” said Dr. Rhona Mahony, the master of the National Maternity Hospital. “You have this incredibly complex physiology of medicine, and it is framed in this criminal context.”

These restrictions have forced women in Ireland who aren’t at imminent risk of death to resort to extreme measures to access abortion services, including procuring abortion pills through international mail. According to the Health Products Regulatory Authority, customs seized 1,017 pills of misoprostol and mifepristone in 2014 — more than double the amount they seized the year before. One strategy for avoiding the scrutiny of customs has been to have the pills mailed to addresses in Northern Ireland, as a group of abortion-rights activists did in a public protest last year.

Many women go further. From 1980 to 2014, at least 161,987 women visited England or Wales to obtain an abortion. Because the right to travel for abortion is constitutionally protected by the 13th Amendment, critics such as Amnesty International have accused Ireland of effectively exporting its problem. The inability of some women to travel because of economic hardship — or, in the case of asylum seekers, visa restrictions — has contributed to a growing sense of injustice among abortion-rights advocates and public supporters.

Ailbhe Smyth, a convener of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, which organized the conference at the Gresham Hotel, believes people are now convinced “at a sufficiently high level” that the amendment is no longer working for Ireland. Calling it a “hindrance to the good society,” she said that the Eighth Amendment has outlived “whatever usefulness people thought it once had.” She cited a recent Amnesty International poll that found that 81 percent of respondents were in favor of “significantly widening” access to abortion in Ireland beyond the current legal position. The poll also found that 45 percent of respondents were in favor of liberalizing abortion completely, granting women access to abortion “as they choose.”

At the conference, Smyth used the Amnesty poll to open the day’s discussions on repealing the Eighth Amendment. Her audience was mostly women, with a few men scattered through the rows and children playing at the back of the room. Standing onstage, she announced that she had the support of more than two dozen organizations — Doctors for Choice, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the United Left. This was just the beginning, she said, adding, “We know that around the country, there are hundreds of thousands of people who want to help us.”

‘Seismic shifts in outlook’

Over the past few years, a series of highly visible, ethically challenging medical cases have made the debate increasingly difficult to ignore. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist living in Galway, died from septicemia after she was refused an abortion. Her death, which a medical inquest blamed on substandard care and confusion by the doctors over how to work within Ireland’s abortion laws, drew international attention, and thousands of people attended candlelight vigils and protest marches.

Last December, a clinically brain-dead pregnant woman was kept on life support for weeks by a Dublin medical team that was afraid of being prosecuted for causing the death of her unborn fetus. “The doctors felt compelled to interpret the constitution rather than their ethics,” said Niall Behan, the CEO of the Irish Family Planning Association. It took a ruling from Ireland’s High Court to switch the machines off, but not before one writer accused the Irish state of using a woman’s body as a “cadaveric incubator.”

Demonstrators outside the Irish parliament building in Dublin in 2012, holding pictures of Savita Halappanavar, who died from septicemia after she was refused an abortion.
Peter Muhly / AFP / Getty Images

Cases like these have forced the public to consider the medical implications of Ireland’s abortion rules. But many abortion-rights advocates also attribute the growing conversation to larger cultural shifts — particularly with regard to women. Even though Ireland still refers to a woman’s “life within the home” in its constitution, there have never been more women in the Irish workforce. Gender roles are changing in a country that banned contraception until 1980 and practiced symphysiotomy — a surgical widening of the pelvis to facilitate childbirth, often conducted without a woman’s knowledge or consent — until four years later. “The notion that men and women are equals is a very new one,” said Cathleen Doherty, a spokeswoman for the Abortion Rights Campaign, which frames its fight for abortion as a fight for women’s rights in Ireland. “The right to determine the course of our own lives is fundamental to being equal to my brother.”

Abortion-rights advocates also point to the erosion of the Catholic Church, accelerated by the exposure of child sex abuse cases, as yet another determining factor in the public willingness to discuss issues once considered off limits. “People haven’t necessarily lost their faith,” said Smyth. “But they have lost that sense of awe that they had for the church as an authority and the final arbiter on all social mores.”

David Quinn, the director of the Iona Institute, a Christian think tank that promotes traditional concepts of marriage and religion in Irish society, agreed that Ireland has experienced a move away from the Catholic Church, but he thinks the importance of this shift has been overstated. “What’s happening now is kind of like a spring clean — I use that word advisedly — of anything in our law that smacks of Catholic influence,” said Quinn, who has drawn a direct line between same-sex marriage and calls for an abortion referendum. He described this process, in a tongue-in-cheek tone, as “going through the constitution, going through our laws and [excising] the Catholic influence in the name of various values like equality or autonomy.”

Many anti-abortion advocates dismiss the idea that momentum is gathering against the Eighth Amendment. They acknowledge the growing prominence of a conversation about repeal — namely, its appearance on front pages and in editorials — but attribute it to left-leaning media bias. “It isn’t really a groundswell [against the amendment],” said independent Sen. Rónán Mullen, a noted conservative. “More of a media swell that tends to give impetus to particular activists in Ireland.”

The talking cure

Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters / Landov

For Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, the same-sex marriage referendum was a moment of illumination: proof that Ireland was finally willing to confront long-held, seemingly intractable prejudices. “I was having conversations with people around this country that I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would have had,” he said — including one with an 83-year-old woman from the southeastern city of Waterford who, despite being deeply religious, decided to follow her conscience after her priest revealed he’d be voting “yes.” The marriage referendum confounded “what we were told about ourselves and who we are as a people,” he said.

The kind of stigma that once surrounded homosexuality in Ireland, which was decriminalized in 1993, still surrounds abortion. If same-sex marriage allowed the Irish people to discover “the capacity to have a challenging conversation about an issue that had been judged to be socially divisive and difficult,” O’Gorman said, he believes a similar dialogue may happen around the Eighth Amendment. “The issue that has been most divisive and difficult in Ireland — going back 40 years — is the issue of abortion, so it’s only natural that people would say, ‘Well, could we talk about this now?’”

Abortion-rights advocates are following the lead of same-sex marriage campaigners by trying to tackle stigma out in the open. Recently, Amnesty created what it called a safe space for public debate about abortion at a popular music festival. The Abortion Rights Campaign, as well as hosting stigma-busting workshops, has organized a series of speak-outs that aim to “normalize the topic of abortion” in the public sphere. The campaign’s annual March for Choice, now in its fourth year, saw as many as 10,000 people swarm the streets of Dublin in September, just days after the Twitter hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion trended across the country.

More and more women are stepping forward to tell their own stories, risking personal opprobrium for what they see as a greater good. One of the first was Ruth Bowie, a pediatric nurse who lives in Dublin. Because of her training, she understood what it meant when in 2009 a doctor diagnosed her unborn fetus with anencephaly, an embryonic disorder that prevents the proper development of a child’s brain and skull. Anencephaly almost always kills a baby within hours or days of birth and cannot be treated.

She also knew what it meant when the doctor outlined her limited legal options in Ireland: She could see the pregnancy to term, or she could “choose to travel.”

The first choice — carrying a baby she knew was going to die — was not something Bowie was willing to consider. So she gathered information from the Irish Family Planning Association, a Dublin-based sexual health charity, and then flew to Birmingham, England, where she obtained an abortion. “At my lowest point, I felt that my country had kicked me out,” she said.

She then decided to subvert Ireland’s culture of silence by agreeing to appear alongside three other women on the front page of The Irish Times. This was April 17, 2012 — long before the current swell of abortion-rights voices like Ingle’s. Three years later, Bowie is still speaking out about being forced to travel for an abortion, now through Termination for Medical Reasons, an awareness-raising group focused on fatal fetal abnormality. “I get so upset it’s still happening,” she said. “It drives me up the wall.” 

‘A critical juncture’

Making changes to the Constitution of Ireland, including repealing an amendment, can happen only after the proposed change has been put to the public through a national referendum. For a referendum to occur, the proposed change must be introduced to the lower house of the Irish legislature as a bill, then passed by both the lower and upper houses, the Dáil and the Seanad. This is what happened with same-sex marriage. A marriage equality bill was introduced to the Dáil in March, passed by the Seanad that month and brought before an already enthusiastic public in late May. Same-sex marriage had nearly universal support across major political parties in Ireland, including the backing of the taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny. Politicians and the public were largely aligned on the issue.

That is not the case when it comes to abortion. Though multiple polls show considerable public support in widening access, the political establishment is more ambivalent about change. “Generally speaking, politicians and political parties and, in particular, governments are way behind the electorate on issues like this,” said O’Gorman. He attributed the lag not to political disinterest but to factors such as fear. “This is a scary thing to have to deal with. In part that’s because the debate up until now has been vile. It’s been dehumanizing and vitriolic and aggressive,” he said.

Multiple abortion bills have been voted down in the Dáil over the past few years. And while political parties such as Labour have promised to make repealing the Eighth Amendment part of their general election platforms, others are outright opposed, like the center-right Fianna Fáil, or internally divided, like the right-leaning Fine Gael, which currently holds the majority of seats in a coalition government. Several Fine Gael ministers have called current abortion legislation too restrictive, but Kenny, the party leader, has refused to commit to holding a referendum if Fine Gael is returned to power in the upcoming elections. The day before the conference at the Gresham Hotel, Kenny announced that although he was not in favor of “abortion on demand,” he was “quite prepared to listen” to ideas for what might replace the Eighth Amendment.

To some conference attendees, the fact that Kenny was discussing the possibility of a referendum at all signaled a subtle yet important shift. “The door is definitely unlocked, and we can push it open,” said Clare Daly, an Independent Socialist deputy in the Dáil, after taking the stage midafternoon. “That’s what we’re here to do.”

In February she watched a bill that would have allowed abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities defeated in the Dáil. Now her voice boomed like a person trying to nudge a crowd toward revolt as she declared the moment “a critical juncture for repealing the Eighth.” Leaning over the lectern, she accused the political establishment of being an “impediment.” If abortion had been left to the public, it “would have been sorted out years ago,” she said, as members of audience nodded in agreement. The crowd was focused and serious; many had spent the day signing up for mailing lists and participating in workshops on creative campaigning or activism and mobilization. In this room, a referendum on the Eighth Amendment was not a question of if but when.

“The reality is that we are waging war for reproductive justice,” Daly continued. “Our task in this session is to train and energize the troops of this powerful citizens’ army in the decisive battles ahead. And decisive they will be.”

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