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Opinion: We must repeal the eighth amendment

The presence of the eighth amendment is putting the life, health or well-being of certain pregnant woman at risk.

Sinéad Kennedy Action for Choice

LAST OCTOBER, 12 women’s and civil society organisations released a joint statement highlighting the detrimental impact that Article 40.3.3 has had on women in Ireland, and announcing a national campaign for its repeal.

In the statement we said:

The Eighth Amendment continues to cause great hardship for women in this country… Migrant women, women with little or no income, women who are unable to travel for whatever reason, women facing a pregnancy with a medical diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality have all suffered disproportionately over the past three decades. Article 40.3.3 was a mistake, and continues to be a mistake and a source of confusion and discrimination for women in this country [and for this reason] we are calling for its repeal.

The presence of the eighth amendment in the Constitution means that, in legal terms at least, a foetus is an independent entity whose rights must be protected regardless of the risk to the life, health or well-being of the pregnant woman. In practice this means that it is the pregnant woman who must bear the weight of this public duty to vindicate fetal life, regardless of the harm or damage it will do her physical or psychological well being.

Since 1983 over 160,000 Irish women have been forced to travel abroad in order to access safe and legal abortion services; that represents an average of 12 women every day, or 4000 women every year.

United Nations Human Rights Committee

Nigel Rodley, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, probably most accurately articulated the experience of being a pregnant woman in Ireland when in his recent closing remarks during Ireland’s Fourth Periodic Examination by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, he stated that Ireland’s abortion laws treat a pregnant woman ‘as a vessel, nothing more’.

The government was asked by the Committee to comment on how the stipulation that a pregnant woman, at risk of suicide, be examined by a series of doctors before being allowed access to abortion was compatible with it obligations to protect citizens from mental torture, and to justify the inequalities in the law that adversely affected poor women, asylum seekers, those in state care and women with disabilities. The Government’s response was simply to suggest that if a majority of people wanted to take away the rights of any group, they were entitled to do so. This is simply not good enough.

In the 20 plus years since the 1992 X case ruling support for abortion reform in Ireland has grown dramatically. In two subsequent referendums, 1992 and 2002, government attempted to exclude suicide as grounds for lawful abortion in Ireland but, on both occasions, the electorate conclusively rejected this option. Despite these levels of support the Irish electorate has never been given the opportunity to make abortion less restrictive or, indeed, to offer legal abortion.

Tragic examples 

If, after the death of Savita Halappanavar, we require a further reminder of the effect of the presence of Article 40.3.3 in our Constitution it can be found in the recent case of Ms Y, a young rape victim, whose life, doctors concluded, was at risk from suicide, but who was still denied an abortion and forced, under duress, to undergo a caesarean section. As a migrant Ms Y was left with no alternative: she was unable to travel, lacking the financial means to pay for an abortion; nor could she obtain the required visas to exit and re-enter the State.

Ms Y’s horrific situation arose despite the introduction of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act 2014; legislation that was supposed to prevent such cases and provide abortion where a woman’s life was at risk, including the risk of suicide. Even if the government had introduced better legislation it was always clear that no law enacted under the shadow of the eighth amendment would ever be fit for purpose, not least because it criminalises women for making autonomous decisions about their own health and well-being.

The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Conference is the first step on what will hopefully be a short path to ensuring that our laws and our Constitution respect women as more than vessels.

Sinéad Kennedy is spokesperson for Action for Choice.  A Repeal the 8th Conference is taking place today, 6 September 2014, more details here.

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About the author:

Sinéad Kennedy  / Action for Choice

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