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What are political leaders waiting for? It's time to liberalise Ireland's abortion laws

Abortion is a sensitive subject., but there are many reasons why the laws need to be overhauled, writes Julien Mercille.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

THE DEBATE ON ABORTION has intensified with the upcoming election and the campaign to repeal the Constitution’s Eighth amendment. I present below ten reasons why Ireland’s abortion law should be liberalised.

Currently, the law is extremely restrictive. It criminalises abortion even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal impairment, as an excellent Amnesty International report documents. The recent Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 leaves this legal framework largely intact. Abortion is criminal on all but one ground (when a woman’s life is at risk).

Abortion is a sensitive subject. Therefore, the points below may be considered as issues up for discussion and debate. Nevertheless, I’d argue that the law should be liberalised for the following reasons.

23/10/2015 Abortion Pill Bus. Pictured are Pro-cho Source: Leah Farrell

1. An overwhelming majority of Irish people want the law to be liberalised, as a number of opinion polls have found. For example, about 75% of people favour widening the grounds for abortion to include, for instance, cases of rape, incest or foetal abnormalities. Conversely, only 14% of people think abortion should never be allowed.

2.  We’re out of step with the Western world. Ireland is an island of conservatism within a European sea of liberalism. As can be seen from the map from the US-based Centre for Reproductive Rights, Ireland is in red (denoting the most restrictive abortion regimes globally) while Europe is in green (the most liberal regimes) (Britain is legally in yellow but in practice it is green).

3. The state should not force women to continue with a pregnancy that is a result of rape or incest, which are criminal acts. Shouldn’t women be allowed to minimise the consequences of those acts if they wish? The same goes for foetal impairment. These are specific conditions under which virtually all Western countries permit abortion—but not Ireland.

4. Human rights organisations agree that our law needs to be less restrictive since it violates women’s and girls’ rights to health, life, non-discrimination, freedom from ill-treatment, and privacy. Ireland is thus not fulfilling its obligations to respect these rights.

28/9/2013. Pro Choice Protests Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

5. Because human rights start at birth, not before. Therefore, the rights of a woman should take precedence over the rights of an embryo or a foetus. To be clear, those who argue that unborn babies also have rights have a defensible case. Even the most liberal countries agree that abortions should normally not take place once the foetus is viable. This means that after about 20 weeks of gestation, an abortion is permitted only in very specific circumstances (for example, in cases of rape or incest).

But this position is entirely different from making abortion illegal and criminal in the first few weeks of pregnancy.

6. Because the current law threatens the lives and health of women. For example, the law guiding medical practitioners is so unclear and restrictive that a woman who needs an abortion based on medical grounds is forced to wait until her condition deteriorates to the point of justifying the intervention.

This is what happened to Savita Halappanavar, who died after having been denied a termination during complications related to her miscarriage. Doctors were unclear about the law and delayed an abortion that could have improved her condition and saved her life.

7. Every year, 4,000 Irish women travel abroad, mainly to Britain, to have an abortion. This is 162,000 women who travelled abroad for an abortion between 1980 and 2014. Why not take care of our own citizens instead of sweeping the problem under the carpet?

28/9/2013. Pro Choice Protests

Moreover, those who do not have the funds to travel face a further obstacle.

8. Because providing abortion services would improve the quality of our health care system. First, it would offer an important service that virtually all other European countries provide. Second, pregnant women would trust more our maternity services. At the moment, there is distrust because the law is unclear as to what happens if complications arise before birth.

9. The restrictive abortion laws amount to social control of women and girls by religious institutions and the state. It is about establishing strict rules and norms about sexuality that are regulated by religious and state authorities. If we want to live in an authoritarian state, that’s fine. But if we want to live in a country where people are free to decide for themselves, the law must be liberalised.

Further, a lot of the negative perceptions about abortion held in Ireland are the result of very deficient sexuality education programmes in schools.

In an insightful report, the Irish Times found that secondary school students heard incorrect anti-abortion messages by teachers and outside agencies, such as “a rape victim can’t become pregnant. Abortion damages a woman’s internal organs. Abortion destroys a woman’s mental health”.

10. It’s a logical continuation of the marriage referendum on the road to making Ireland more socially progressive. Nothing bad or catastrophic happened after same-sex marriage became accepted. Around the world, news outlets reported on Ireland in a very positive fashion.

In short, Ireland is a clear outlier by Western standards and the majority of Irish people favour the liberalisation of abortion law. What are political leaders waiting for?

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter @JulienMercille.

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About the author:

Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

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