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Column: Abortion is a reality in Ireland – now we need to legislate for it

Senator Ivana Bacik and her student union colleagues were threatened with jail in 1989 for giving out information on abortion. She argues that public opinion has turned and that the Government must confront reality.

Senator Ivana Bacik

IN 2010, A TOTAL of 4,402 women travelled from Ireland to Britain for abortion – 12 women every day.

Since abortion was legalised in Britain in 1967, more than 140,000 Irish women have had abortions abroad. Irish law on abortion is the most restrictive in Europe. Abortion is a criminal offence under 1861 legislation, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

In 1983, our Constitution was amended to make the right to life of ‘the unborn’ equal to that of ‘the mother’. This made our law even more restrictive; a pregnancy may only be terminated legally in order to save the life of the pregnant woman. There is no right to abortion in any other circumstance; even where a woman or girl has been raped or abused, or is carrying a non-viable foetus.

Despite this highly repressive law, abortion is a reality in Ireland. Yet the cultural taboo on speaking out about crisis pregnancy has been strengthened by the intimidatory tactics of the anti-choice campaigners. Abortion represents their last line of defence, since contraception and divorce were legalised in the 1990s. These conservative lobbyists have brought disproportionate influence to bear on fearful politicians.

Following the 1983 Amendment, anti-abortion groups took a series of court cases which closed down women’s counselling centres, depriving women of the right to receive information on how to obtain abortion abroad. Students’ unions became the only organisations willing to provide such information.

We were threatened with prison for giving information

As President of Trinity Students’ Union in 1989-90, I carried out Union policy by giving information on abortion to women with crisis pregnancies. As a result we were threatened with prison by SPUC (the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child). Our case helped to bring about legal change, but the 1992 X case was the most important legal development. This arose when a-14 year-old pregnant rape victim tried to travel to England with her parents to terminate her pregnancy. The State sought to prevent her travelling abroad, and in the public outcry that followed, the Supreme Court ruled that because X was suicidal, the pregnancy posed a real and substantial risk to her life, so her pregnancy could lawfully be terminated.

As a result of the X case, two further amendments to the Constitution were passed in November 1992. The first allowed freedom to provide information on abortion – the issue in our legal case. The second allowed the right to travel for women seeking abortions. The Government also proposed a third referendum, seeking to overturn the X case by ruling out suicide risk as a ground for abortion, but thankfully this was defeated. In 2002, after pressure from anti-abortion groups, another referendum tried to rule out suicide risk as a ground for abortion – but again this was thankfully defeated.

Opinion polls show that support for legal abortion has increased significantly

In December 2010, the European Court of Human Rights gave judgment in a case taken by three women, A, B and C, against Ireland, claiming that their human rights were breached because they were forced to travel abroad for abortions. The European court ruled that the law breached the rights of one woman, C, a cancer patient whose pregnancy posed a serious risk to her health. The Government has now said it will set up an expert group to recommend how best to implement the ABC judgment.

In fact, legislation to clarify the law for women like C by providing for life-saving abortions is long overdue. Opinion polls show that support for legal abortion has increased significantly in recent years. As Irish society has changed and liberalised, most people have become more accepting of the need to legalise abortion.

It is the time to challenge the culture of silence and hypocrisy; the Government must confront the reality of crisis in Ireland and legislate to meet the real health needs of Irish women.

Ivana Bacik is a Labour senator and Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin.

Meanwhile, the crew at The Line Ireland have taken to the streets to record the diverse range of opinion on whether abortion should be legalised in Ireland:

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Senator Ivana Bacik

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