September 2015        

No reproductive freedom in Ireland, North or South

Scarlett Hoy

The availability of safe, legal abortion and affordable, reliable contraception is really good for women. Being able to decide if and when to have a child (or more children) improves women’s educational outcome, our career prospects, our health, the health of our relationships, the well-being of our children, our lifetime earnings, and our sex lives. Women benefit tremendously from reproductive freedom, and so does society as a whole.
     However, access to abortion remains a controversial issue around the world. In Ireland, North and South, legal restrictions have resulted in Irish women being compelled to travel to Britain and further afield to obtain an abortion, while others are forced to purchase the “abortion pill” from internet sources.
     On average 1,000 women a year leave the North and 3,000 leave the South to gain access to their reproductive rights in Britain and beyond. It is time to end this discrimination and trust women to make the right decisions for them and their families. What is required is legal reform, both North and South, so that women who seek termination for varied and complex reasons when faced with a crisis pregnancy are enabled and supported to do so.
     Although abortion is legal in Northern Ireland in very restricted circumstances, the pathway into the National Health Service is severely limited by the continuing failure of the Department of Health to publish final Termination of Pregnancy Guidance. The last guidelines, which were withdrawn after a legal challenge, threatened professionals with prosecution for providing any abortion services.
     In April 2015, after mounting public pressure because of the publicity surrounding the Sarah Ewart case, the Department of Justice issued a consultation on abortion law reform only in the case of fatal foetal abnormality and not on grounds of rape or sexual crime (incest). Sarah Ewart, a woman from Northern Ireland who was identified as having a fatal foetal abnormality and was refused an abortion in the North, allowed a local journalist to follow her to London and to document her story, which was then shown on local television.
     In June 2015 the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission began legal proceedings in the High Court against the Department of Justice, arguing that the existing law is a violation of human rights. It is seeking a change in the law to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest, or “serious malformation” of the foetus. The judgement has been reserved until the autumn of 2015.
     In July a mother was prosecuted in Belfast for supplying abortion pills to her daughter, and her case will be heard this autumn also.
     The continued harassment of women using the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast since it opened in October 2012 has been exacerbated by the overturning in June 2015 of the harassment case of the former director, Dawn Purvis, which she won against the director of Precious Life, Bernadette Smyth. This led to all charges being dropped against the Precious Life protesters, culminating in a physical assault on one of the clinic escorts in July. Alicea Brennan of Precious Life was arrested for the assault the following week outside the Belfast clinic.
     A recent public opinion poll carried out by Millward Brown Ulster on behalf of Amnesty International’s campaign “My Body, My Rights” clearly showed that people in Northern Ireland were in favour of abortion—60 per cent on the grounds of fatal foetal abnormality, 68 per cent in the case of incest, and 69 per cent on the grounds of rape. Repeated surveys have shown that the majority of the population and medical professionals support a change in the law. The politicians’ continued inaction reflects their ignorance and their disregard for opinion in the North.
     In the South the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland in 1983 introduced a constitutional ban on abortion, asserting that “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 laws to defend and vindicate that right.” This, therefore, makes the life of the foetus equal to that of the mother.
     In July 2014, at the conclusion of the fourth periodic examination of Ireland’s human rights record by the UN Human Rights Committee, the chairperson of the committee, Nigel Rodley—a leading expert in international human rights law and a former UN Special Reporter on Torture—commented: “The recognition of the primary right to life of the woman who is an existent human being has to prevail over that of the unborn child and I can’t begin to understand by what belief system the priority would be given to the latter rather than the former.”
     In March 2012 Savita Halappanavar began to miscarry in a Galway hospital. She repeatedly asked for a termination and was refused. She died a few days later from septicaemia and organ failure. In 2013 the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed by the Dáil, which made it legal to obtain an abortion in some cases. The circumstances in which an abortion can be granted have proved so difficult as to prevent most people from exploring that avenue. The act also criminalised abortion, with a prison sentence of up to fourteen years. Terminations in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities are prohibited.
     In 2014 the Abortion Rights Campaign launched its petition and campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution is clearly a relic of a bygone era, the era of symphysiotomy, mother-and-baby homes, the Magdalen laundries, and clerical sexual abuse. Opinion polls have consistently shown that attitudes to abortion in Ireland have changed radically.
     The Eighth Amendment is a barrier to progress and a major source of inequality and discrimination. Its effects are particularly harsh for women on low incomes, as abortions are expensive (€1,500–€2000), and getting time off work is difficult. For many migrant women the situation is worse: they cannot travel abroad.
     In August 2014 a young migrant woman who was pregnant as a result of rape sought an abortion on the grounds of a danger of suicide under the 2013 act. After she had been forcibly fed and lied to about the possibility of a termination, her baby was delivered by Caesarean section at 25 weeks.
     In December the same year a clinically dead woman was being kept alive on a life-support machine, against the wishes of her parents, as doctors were unwilling to turn the machine off because of the Eighth Amendment.
     John Douglas, general secretary of Mandate, said: “Trade unions are more than about representing workers in their jobs. We are a community, representing workers and their families, both in work-places across this country and in wider society. That’s why repealing the Eighth Amendment is one of the most important issues for our movement right now. Women in Ireland deserve to have their voices heard and they should be the only people making decisions about their own bodies.”
     As women we recognise that the control, regulation and stigmatisation of female fertility, bodies and sexuality is politically and culturally policed in Ireland. Reproductive health and justice are an integral part of the global movements for women’s rights and against poverty that are contained within the global human rights framework.
     What we need is the decriminalisation of abortion in line with international human rights standards so that health professionals can provide such care without the threat of prosecution. Every woman who has been forced to travel to obtain an abortion that should be safe and legal in their home country is an indictment of the Irish state and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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