The 2018 referendum – which repealed the oppressive Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and allowed room for the government to legislate for abortion access – came following years of grassroots activism and campaigning. But what is the status quo regarding access to abortion services in Ireland? STAND investigates.
Abortion in Ireland is now regulated by the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018 which provides the legislative framework for the provision of abortion services in defined circumstances. The framework draws on the recommendations of the 2017 Citizen’s Assembly and the Joint Oireachtas Committee. Both groups recommended that termination of pregnancy should be permitted ‘with no restriction to reason’ up to 12 weeks’ gestation age. This is in line with the laws of other countries such as France, Finland and Germany. After the 12-week gestation the Bill permits termination in cases of risk to life, of serious risk to health, or fatal foetal abnormality.
The criterion of “serious” risk to health has been denounced by groups such as Amnesty International and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties as it puts the onus on doctors to determine whether the risk is severe enough. This puts doctors in a difficult position, making them more likely to err on the side of caution. Other issues include the fact that abortion services are provided free of charge to Republic of Ireland residents but not to women from Northern Ireland (as many groups had campaigned for). A 3-day waiting period between initial consultation and the termination procedure was also inserted into the Bill despite protests from activists.
The continued criminalisation of terminations outside of the current framework is one of the biggest agenda items for abortion rights activists as – although the 2018 Bill does not criminalise women procuring abortions for themselves – it states that it is an offence for a person to carry out or assist in carrying out a termination outside of the provisions of the Bill. Amnesty International Ireland (whose original abortion rights campaign in 2015 was titled ‘She is Not a Criminal’, focussing on the inhumane nature of the 14-year jail sentences placed on women accessing illegal abortions in Ireland) has condemned this continued criminalisation. This 14-year jail sentence continues to loom over doctors who are deciding whether there is a “serious” risk to the health of the mother, or if a foetal anomaly is fatal. Linda Kavanagh from the Abortion Rights Campaign stressed that women who qualified for terminations in Ireland were still being forced to travel ‘due to overly cautious interpretations of the law from doctors fearing criminal sanctions’. In November 2018, Dáil Eireann voted on the possibility of decriminalisation but this proposal was defeated. Minister Simon Harris claimed that continued criminalisation was necessary from a policy perspective and that removing it may put the life or health of women at risk.
The mandatory three-day waiting period between the initial GP consultation and the termination is an aspect of the Irish legislation which falls short of international human rights law. It puts some of the most vulnerable women in a difficult position when they are trying to procure abortion services. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties characterised this mandatory waiting period as an ‘unnecessary restriction on safe access to abortion [that] reinforces patriarchal notions of women as incapable of making decisions regarding their own health’. It also highlights how this will have the most impact on people in abusive relationships, those who live in remote areas or in Direct Provision centres, disabled people and those who struggle to pay for two separate doctors’ appointments. In June 2019, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) raised concerns about these barriers to access for those in vulnerable or complicated situations, as well as concerns around delays in “buffer-zone” legislation. Dr Cliona Loughnane of the NWCI highlighted the ‘institutional conscientious objection’ which can be seen in places such as Kilkenny and which the government promised would not be the case. She also calls for urgency in passing buffer-zone legislation to protect women and their doctors. In many cases, particularly in rural areas, the inability to access abortion services privately and without exposure to protestors is enough to force some women to travel to the UK.
One of the Together For Yes slogans seen on billboards across Ireland during the lead up to the referendum stated ‘sometimes a private matter needs public support’. Although in theory Ireland now has legislation allowing for abortion services, in practice there is still much to be done to ensure access to these services is a reality for every single person capable of becoming pregnant in this country.
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