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Could an Irish woman be jailed for taking an abortion pill?

The short answer is that it’s difficult to rule out the possibility.

Briana O'Doherty from Tallaght at Connolly Station in October 2014, after pro-choice activists brought abortion pills back from Belfast.
Briana O'Doherty from Tallaght at Connolly Station in October 2014, after pro-choice activists brought abortion pills back from Belfast.
Image: PA Archive/Press Association Images

THE STORY OF a 21-year-old Belfast woman receiving a suspended sentence for obtaining abortion pills online to induce a miscarriage has raised fresh questions about abortion on the island of Ireland.

While the woman’s lawyer pointed out that she “would not have found herself before the court” had she lived in any other part of the UK, would she have found herself in court had she lived in the Republic?

The short answer is that it’s difficult to rule out the possibility.

It is important to point out that no woman has ever been prosecuted for using abortion pills in the Republic of Ireland and Irish pro-life groups are also opposed to punishing women in such cases.

Given that caveat, as junior health minister Kathleen Lynch summarised during a Dáil debate about abortion pills, having an abortion is illegal in all but some very specific instances.

It is illegal to procure an abortion in Ireland outside of the circumstances specified in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.

The circumstances described are those in which there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother. This includes a risk arising from a threat of suicide.

Obtaining an abortion outside those circumstances could therefore be considered an offence but any prosecutions could be brought only by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Irish Family Planning Association also points to another section of the act it feels could potentially be broad enough to lead to a prosecution for the use of abortion pills.

Section 22 reads:

(1) It shall be an offence to intentionally destroy unborn human life.(2) A person who is guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on indictment to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years, or both.

The IFPA says that, while it is not offering legal advice, it could be argued that this could include the importation of abortion pills with the intent to use them.

While the question remains whether a woman would be prosecuted for taking pills to end a pregnancy in Ireland , the evidence suggests that it is occurring.

In 2014, 1,017 such pills, mifepristone and misoprostol, were seized by customs on their way into Ireland.

Read: Customs seized 1,017 abortion pills last year >

Read: Pro-choice campaigners take ‘abortion pill bus’ across Ireland >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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