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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
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Opinion Ireland's law on abortion is a shambles entirely of the State’s creation

The case of Ms Y highlights the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment girls and women are subjected to because of Ireland’s abortion laws.

WOMEN AND GIRLS who are pregnant and seeking asylum in Ireland find themselves at the intersection of two State systems that deny them basic human dignity: the direct provision system and the law on abortion. Both have been criticised by human rights bodies as violating human rights in ways that are discriminatory and stigmatising.

The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) has been consistently critical of these systems. Indeed, we first raised the specific needs of women asylum seekers who experience an unplanned or crisis pregnancy as far back as 2002 on the establishment of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency.

Myriad obstacles for women seeking help

The vast majority of women in Ireland who decide to terminate a pregnancy are excluded from the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. Unless a woman’s life, as distinct from her health, is at risk, she must rely on abortion services in another state – if, that is, she is able to travel there.

An asylum seeker who needs to travel to another jurisdiction to access an abortion becomes mired in paperwork—the Dutch and UK embassies, for example, require 12 separate pieces of documentation before a visa can be issued—and faces costs amounting to multiples of her weekly allowance of €19.10.

A woman may also need a temporary travel document and a re-entry visa to return to Ireland. All of this requires numerous visits to and from the relevant government offices, which are all based in Dublin. And the travel documents may be refused.

And the woman or girl, new to the country, perhaps unable to speak English, unable to ask for help, and unfamiliar with the practicalities of getting around an Irish city, must navigate these processes herself. If she is successful, she must then get to a clinic in the UK, or, more likely, the Netherlands. She more than likely needs to rely on interpreters at every stage.

The burden of organising and paying for such care falls entirely on the woman or girl, whatever her residency status or the circumstances of her pregnancy. Some support is available for the costs of travel and accommodation. Some abortion clinics in the UK may sometimes waive their fees where a woman has no means to pay.

But at each step, the woman or girl must expose a deeply personal and private situation to strangers.

This shambles causes systemic harms

The IFPA has a conscientious commitment to our clients. We see women and girls who are in extreme distress because of the circumstances of their pregnancy, women whose physical or mental health is seriously compromised, women who are desperate to end a pregnancy.

As a health service provider, we do everything we possibly can to ensure that women and girls can access services. But our services are regulated by the Abortion Information Act and our counsellors cannot, for example, make an appointment or any other “arrangement” with an abortion clinic on a woman’s behalf. We cannot give her financial assistance.

We work closely with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and health service providers to create care pathways for women and to ensure women have access to financial supports. These pathways and supports are delicate constructions, almost entirely reliant on the goodwill and conscientious commitment of individuals—eg, numerous NGOs, counsellors and volunteers.

And it is on these shaky and impermanent supports that the State relies to ensure that women can exercise their right to travel out of Ireland for an abortion. There is no institutionalised system of state supports. Instead there is a shambles, entirely of the State’s creation, an appalling derogation by the State of its duty to ensure women’s dignity and human rights.

And this shambles causes systemic harms. Women who have abortions are stigmatised. In some cases, the obstacles are insurmountable and women are forced to continue with a pregnancy and to parent, perhaps while living in a reception centre. Or resort to illegal and unsafe methods of abortion.

The case of Ms Y leaves no doubt that the law on abortion in Ireland must change. The September Sunday Independent/Millward Brown opinion poll shows that a tipping point has been reached.

We must change the Constitution

Systemic harms require systemic responses. We must change the Constitution, which allows the right to life of “the unborn” to be asserted, even at grave cost to the health of a pregnant woman. The Government must repeal the Abortion Information Act. The Government must repeal the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which applies only in life-threatening situations and yet imposes additional legal barriers even in such situations. And we must end the criminalisation of abortion in all other cases and reframe abortion as part of reproductive health care.

This Sunday is the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. If we are to ensure that no other woman or girl is subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment because of Ireland’s abortion laws, the Government must recognise the systemic harms caused by the law. Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution prevents a systemic response to these harms; its repeal is a political imperative.

Niall Behan is Chief Executive of the Irish Family Planning Association.

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