Life when abortion is banned: the case of Ireland

Life when abortion is banned: the case of Ireland

Posted on the 11/05/18

The “Repeal the 8th” mural on the front of Project Arts Centre in Dublin’s Temple Bar . Pic Collins Photos

Two weeks from now, Ireland will hold an historic referendum to repeal the 8th amemndment to its Constitution. This amendment, adopted in 1983, blocks any hope of liveralization of the country’s policy of full criminalization of abortion.

Ahead of the vote in two weeks, we asked our Members from the Humanist Association of Ireland to provide us with an insight into the many facets of this fundamental issue.

We speficially thank Eamon Murphy and Shona Weymes for providing us with the wonderful below contribution and we of course hope that the referendum will finally allow Irish women to hope that one day they will have full ability to make decisions over their own body!


The start of March saw Storm Emma bring Ireland to a standstill – airports were shut, flights in and out were suspended, public transport of all kind was cancelled and ferries ceased operating.  Citizens were advised to stay indoors and no-one could essentially get in or out of the country. Bread became the hot commodity and people bunkered in to enjoy a few snow days.

A bit of fun, something unusual and really only a minor inconvenience for most, but not for the 50 or so women and girls who were due to travel that week to England and elsewhere to access abortion services; women who would then have had to make another appointment, schedule new travel arrangements, book more time off work, possibly re-schedule childcare arrangements, and do all of this mostly in secret and at what will likely be great personal expense, financially and emotionally. That’s before you think of the other Irish women who, because of financial reasons, cannot afford to leave the country for an abortion.

The postal service was suspended also, so some women would have anxiously waited to see if their secret packages will get through, containing pills that they can take at home: Pills they would take alone, with no medical supervision, knowing that to consult their GP or attend a woman’s health clinic would be to risk being reported or endangering the career of the medical professionals they turned to for help. A sobering thought by any standard, but just how did Ireland get into this mess?

Added in 1983, the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution states:

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 law to defend and vindicate that right.

Effectively, the Eighth Amendment criminalises abortion in Ireland. In order to obtain an abortion legally, a woman must travel abroad. This is true in all cases, including but not limited to cases of rape, incest, where the mother’s life is in physical, or where there is a fatal foetal abnormality and the child has no chance of survival outside the womb.  Technically, exceptions are made where there is a risk of suicide, but in practice this does not happen because, as the European Court of Human Rights has noted, there is an “absence of any implementing legislative or regulatory regime providing an accessible and effective procedure” through which a woman in Ireland can prove that she is at risk of suicide in a timely fashion.

Currently any woman who has an abortion (including via the aforementioned pills), as well as any healthcare providers, or indeed anyone else, who assists a woman or girl seeking to have an abortion in Ireland faces up to 14 years in prison.

From 1983, when the amendment was introduced, until 2015 it is estimated that more than 160,000 women living in Ireland travelled to England and Wales to access abortion services. In 2018 approximately 12 women each day are travelling abroad for abortions.   Shocking as these figures are, we also know that they are only a tiny part of the story because numbers aren’t available for Irish women travelling to other European countries and we don’t know how many others have given false names and addresses when accessing services in the UK.

As well as denying women access to abortions,

the Eight Amendment also ensures that a pregnant women’s access to health care becomes secondary to that of the pregnancy itself.

The Association for Improvements in Maternity Services Ireland has stated:

[T]he Eighth Amendment is repeatedly used in the context of maternity rights to deny women the right to bodily autonomy in terms of decision making in pregnancy, in labour, in birth and in the postpartum period. Women have reported being forced into caesarean births, forced into invasive procedures during labour, threatened with social services and in some cases threatened with the Gardaí and mental health services for trying to assert their right to bodily autonomy.

In the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, women are forced to either travel to terminate the pregnancy or carry the foteus to term. This is a clear violation of the human rights to privacy, health and freedom from torture and other ill-treatment as set out by the UN Human Rights Committee.

Pregnant women are even occasionally denied dignity in death, as happened in 2014 when, as a result of the Eighth Amendment, a clinically-dead pregnant woman was kept alive on life support, against her family’s wishes. This was only brought to an end when the woman’s father, brought a successful case to the High Court which ordered the withdrawal of life support.

Ireland’s current position has been condemned repeatedly by the UN Human Rights Committee, UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, UN Committee Against Torture, and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and rulings have been brought against Ireland by the European Courts of Human Rights. The current and former heads of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital have both publicly spoken in support of repealing the Eighth Amendment.

In 2017, following pressure from activist groups, the Government formed a Citizen’s Assembly to examine the Eighth Amendment. Ninety nine randomly selected citizens met over five weekends to hear submissions from social, religious, medical and legal experts and groups. At the end of this process their recommendation was clear – 87% of the members indicated their belief that the Eighth Amendment should not be retained in its current form.

Such an overwhelming indication of a need for change could not be ignored. The Citizen’s Assembly Report was brought before a cross-party Parliamentary Committee for further consideration and a recommendation was made that a referendum on the Eighth Amendment be held, with the possibility that parliament would legislate for access to abortion services if the Amendment is repealed.

The Irish Government will hold a referendum on May 25th to ask the electorate to remove the Eight Amendment from the Irish Constitution. The campaign has been tense and occasionally bitter on both sides, and while those in favour of removing the Amendment hold a lead in the polls, it seems an ever-decreasing one, and success if far from a certainty.

Remarkably, this will be the first time that any woman of child bearing age in Ireland has had the opportunity to vote on this issue. The referendum has not come soon enough for the women stranded by Storm Emma, but hopefully the result will help ensure that no woman in Ireland has to travel to access healthcare services that should be accessible in her local hospital or healthcare provider.


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