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'It's time for political parties to stop procrastinating. Abortion regulation does not belong in our constitution'

It is clear that on the issue of abortion, the electorate are now way ahead of our political leaders who seem determined to prevaricate and evade their responsibilities to women living in Ireland, writes Ailbhe Smyth

THIS WEEKEND, THOUSANDS took to the streets for the annual March for Choice calling for real change to Ireland’s punitive abortion regime.

The presence of the Eighth Amendment [Article 40.3.3] in the Irish Constitution continues to be a major obstacle to women achieving full equality in Ireland. The Irish electorate’s resounding “yes” to the question of marriage equality for LGBT people reveals a huge appetite for meaningful change around issues relating to equality and sexuality in Ireland.

No longer in thrall to the forces of tradition and political conservativism the Irish electorate has demonstrated a willingness to confront the legacy of this past.

The Eighth Amendment 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 wellbeing of the pregnant woman. This means that it is the pregnant woman who must vindicate this public duty to preserve fetal life, regardless of the damage it will do her physical or mental well-being.

It bans abortion in all cases except where there is a risk to the life of the pregnant woman. This ban extends to cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal anomaly.

It discriminates against women who are unable to travel, particularly those on low incomes; asylum-seeking women living in direct provision or undocumented women; women with disabilities for whom travel may be difficult; and women and girls in the care of the state.

The Eighth Amendment creates an unequal and discriminatory health care system for women, with pregnant women possessing only a qualified right to healthcare, as a woman’s right to make informed medical decisions is severely restricted.

Irish doctors have been highly critical of the artificial and dangerous distinctions that it requires them to make between a woman’s life and her health; a distinction that is based on theology not science. Minister for Health,

Leo Varadkar, acknowledged last year that it produced a “chilling effect” on doctor preventing them from acting in the best interests of their patients. Nigel Rodley, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, and the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, probably most accurately articulated the experience of being a pregnant woman in Ireland when he stated that Ireland’s abortion laws treat a pregnant woman ‘as a vessel, nothing more’.

Abortion in Ireland is not only illegal: the presence of the Eighth Amendment means that having an abortion or helping a woman have an abortion in Ireland is a criminal offense punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.

This means that the increasing numbers of women who access medical abortions via the abortion pill online are doing so under the shadow of a prison sentence, a reality highlighted by Amnesty International’s recent report and campaign #notacriminal.

And yet, abortion is as much a reality in Ireland, as it is in every other European country. The only difference is that most Irish abortions don’t take place in Ireland. 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 10 women every day, or 4000 women every year.

In the twenty plus years since the 1992 X case ruling, support for abortion reform in Ireland has grown dramatically.

In two subsequent referendums, 1992 and 2002, when the government attempted to exclude suicide as grounds for lawful abortion in Ireland, on both occasions the electorate conclusively rejected this option. Since the death of Savita Halappanavar there has been a growing consensus that Article 40.3.3

Constitution must be removed from the Irish constitution. A recent opinion poll published by Amnesty Ireland in July of this year revealed that 81% of people are in favour of significantly widening the grounds for legal abortion access in Ireland.

Just this week an Irish Examiner’s poll found that 64% of farmers support a more liberal abortion regime.

It is clear that on the issue of abortion, the electorate are now way ahead of our political leaders who seem determined to prevaricate and evade their responsibilities to women living in Ireland.

The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment is calling on all political parties to commit to a 2016 referendum for repeal of the Eighth Amendment , and echoes the sentiments of Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, that regulation of abortion does not belong in our constitution.

It is time for political parties to stop procrastinating. Women deserve better than this from our political leaders. We need abortion provision in this country that protects and respects women’s lives, health and choices.

Ailbhe Smyth is an activist, former UCD academic and member of the Repeal the 8th campaign group. 

An Irish solution: These are your abortion stories>

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