For the hundred of thousands of Irish women who have had an abortion, the painful journey often begins in a long hallway. At a couple of clinics dotted around the country, women were instructed to leave the examining room, turn left and walk down the corridor until they came to a wall-mounted phone. They could then lift the receiver and press 1 for Manchester, 2 for Liverpool…
Of course, nowadays we can find the number of a UK clinic ourselves online, should we need to, as well as all kinds of advice, good, bad and downright horrifying, on how to terminate a pregnancy. Some try to illegally buy an abortion pill online, or recruit a friend in another country to procure one. Others visit dubious web forums filled with old wives tales of frightening home methods. Knitting needles. Being hit by a car. Poisons.
Why resort to such extreme methods? In Ireland and Northern Ireland, a macabre two-tier system has developed - abortions for the rich. A termination in mainland Britain can cost between £400 and £2,000, depending on how far along the pregnancy is, plus travel expenses, and the NHS does not cover the cost, even for Northern Ireland residents. For a 14-year-old rape victim, or someone purely struggling to make ends meet, there may simply be no option to travel.
So some have hailed last week’s ruling in Belfast as a glimmer of hope. A High Court judge held that the abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breached the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to provide an exception in the case of fatal foetal abnormality or rape. This has set an important precedent, but may not open as many doors in the Republic as hoped. A judicial ruling circumventing abortion law is in fact unconstitutional - nothing may be changed without a referendum.
It seems odd that we would even need a judge to tell us human rights are being breached. We can just look at our very recent past for examples of that. To 2012, when Savita Halappanavar died in agony as doctors stood by, unable to perform the termination needed to save her life. To those women who shed tears at the ensuing candlelit vigil, so many with their own stories to tell. To the woman who languished, braindead, on life support last Christmas while the courts dithered over whether to keep her alive as an incubator until her unviable foetus came to term. To the woman who joined the recent online protest where women were invited to “tweet their periods” to Taoiseach Enda Kenny. She wrote: “1st period since my stillborn baby. I carried her for 6 weeks after her diagnosis, losing my mind with grief #repealthe8th.”
In the Republic, the main difficulty lies with the fact that the foetus and mother are granted equal human rights, as laid out in the eighth amendment. Even if the foetus is almost certain to die once born, perhaps in pain, as long as they have a heartbeat they must be be kept alive. And let’s not forget the influence of the Church still in Ireland. But recent polls suggest the majority of the public are in support of holding another referendum on the subject, with most in favour of abortion in extreme cases, such as risk to the mother. Amnesty said that the Northern Ireland ruling “clearly signals that Irish laws are contravening the human rights of women”. Some 800 doctors from 44 countries have called on Ireland to relax abortion laws.
So why not simply call another referendum? Well, so far, the government has been too busy fervently trying to sweep the problem under the rug, or across the Irish sea, to be precise. Irish women are still having abortions - 3,735 in the UK alone last year - while legislators studiously look the other way. A private members’ bill brought by Clare Daly in February this year to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality was defeated. The leader of the opposition has pledged “not to go there” on the subject - refusing to even discuss the issue. Kenny was recently forced to pledge a constitutional review of the Eighth Amendment if re-elected, but some have dismissed it as a sop, another excuse to wallow in a talking shop. He has outsourced the matter to a “Citizens’ Convention”, absolving himself of any responsibility, whatever the outcome. However, it could finally pave the way for the first referendum on the subject since 2002.
While some have been quick to dismiss protests as feminist movements, surely this is not just about feminism, but human rights? The right to feel safe and protected in your own country. The right to bodily autonomy? The grief and suffering is far reaching if a pregnant woman resorts to taking her own life, or a child is born blind and deformed, with only seconds to live. This is not just something that affects women, but whole families, all united in terrible, unspeakable grief while “modern Ireland” innocently whistles and the Ryanair flights fill up. So call the referendum, Mr Kenny. This time the humans of Ireland need to have their say.
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