Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in all of Europe. In 1983, the country amended its constitution to provide equal rights to the life of a woman and the unborn child, effectively banning abortion and prohibiting Irish politicians from legislating for change.
In the decades since the passage of the eighth amendment, there have been a series of high profile cases that highlight the harm that this law causes to girls and women. These range from denying women life-saving cancer treatments because they are pregnant, to preventing women who have received a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly from terminating unviable pregnancies, to the tragic death of Galway dentist Savita Halappanavar, for whom an abortion would have been a life-saving procedure.
On 25 May, the Irish public will have a once in a generation opportunity to change these laws. This is why, in my view, it’s essential that all Irish people vote yes in the upcoming referendum.
1) Under current laws, abortion is illegal is except to save a woman’s life. Doctors practise under the threat of 14 years’ imprisonment if they provide termination for their patients in all other circumstances. This means that they can end up waiting until it’s too late and sacrificing the lives of the mother and the child in order not to be held to account for accidentally killing a foetus while treating the woman.
2) Abortions are illegal in instances of pregnancy as a result of rape, fatal foetal anomaly, and when the woman’s health is at risk. Almost every other country in Europe allows for abortion under these circumstances. The United Nations has repeatedly called Irish abortion laws cruel, inhuman and degrading.
3) Abortion pills, which have become available online in recent years, are also illegal in Ireland. A woman or girl who orders pills online and takes them at home does so without medical support and under the threat of 14 years imprisonment.
4) Thousands of women are forced to travel abroad each year to access abortion. In 2016 alone, 3,265 women provided Irish addresses to clinics in England and Wales. This figure does not include those who did not provide an address or who travelled to other countries. Those who cannot afford to travel may take illegal abortion pills or be forced to continue their pregnancy, adding to cycles of poverty and rates of abandonment.
5) Repealing the eighth amendment will allow the government to legislate for and to regulate abortion in Ireland. It will allow women to decide what is best for them with the support of their doctor, and it will allow doctors to provide the care that women need.
To give women proper autonomy over their bodies and recognition of themselves as equal to men, we have to stop a law which says they have no more right to live than a fertilised egg. Once you consider the facts, it’s very plain that this is the only choice for Ireland.
Ailbhe Smyth is the co-director of Together For Yes and convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment
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