At the end of this month, Irish citizens will be given the chance to remove and replace the eighth amendment – the wording in their constitution which makes abortions illegal in the majority of circumstances.
Ireland currently has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, equating a foetus’ life with that of the woman carrying it. Technically, only if the latter is in danger will an abortion be permitted, but even then it has been proven that ‘pro-lifers’ will allow women to die in the draconian grip of the eighth. Here are three reasons Ireland needs to repeal the amendment.
1. Making abortions illegal doesn’t stop them happening.
Between 2010 and 2015, Women on Web, an online provider of abortion pills, is reported to have distributed 5,650 packages to addresses across Ireland. Despite being considered safe to take at home by the World Health Organisation, 4,098 abortion pills are said to have been seized during that period through raids on people’s houses.
Although no one has ever been prosecuted in the Republic of Ireland for taking the pills, two cases of women in Northern Ireland have come to light in the last few years after they were reported to the police by their doctor and their flatmates.
Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland who has been campaigning for a Yes to repeal vote in the referendum, has recently expressed concern that a No vote would mean it is “only a matter of time” before somebody is prosecuted for taking abortion pills in Ireland. In the eyes of the law, the “right to life of the unborn” dictates that the sentencing for taking the pills is harsher than for those who are convicted of rape.
The fear is that to avoid prosecution and up to 14 years imprisonment, access to abortions will be driven underground to potentially fatal procedures, harking back to times we’d all assumed had been left in the past. Around 68,000 women die annually as a result of unsafe abortions in countries where women have fewer reproductive rights, meaning that’s around 68,000 lives the pro-life movement forgot to give a shit about.
2. Poor women bear the brunt of the amendment.
For Irish women who can afford it, there is the option of travelling to neighbouring countries for the procedure. In 2016, 3,265 women provided an Irish address in a UK abortion clinic, although it’s presumed they won’t all give their real addresses for fear of repercussions back at home.
The pro-choice movement recently made a breakthrough for women in Northern Ireland, who can now access abortions on the NHS and obtain funding toward travel and accommodation costs if they are eligible. Although a major step forward, the broad feeling across the pro-choice movement is that it shouldn’t be necessary to travel in the first place.
Women from Ireland, however, are still faced with costs of up to £410 for a private procedure up to 14 weeks into a pregnancy, or up to £1,350 for anything post-20 weeks, on top of travel and accommodation costs.
Once that option is taken away, the dangers of unsafe alternatives are brought more sharply into focus for poorer women. Order pills online and risk 14 years in prison. Induce the abortion yourself using a method found on the internet and risk dying. Carry the pregnancy to term and risk a whole lifetime of stigma and regret for raising a child you didn’t want in the first place.
3. The amendment doesn’t just harm those with unwanted pregnancies.
For someone who has been pretty plugged into reproductive rights activities since I had an abortion myself in 2012, one of the most eye-opening aspects of the Repeal campaign is how much the eighth amendment affects women who fully intend on carrying their pregnancies to term but face medical complications.
One of the most significant cases which brought the vagueness of the law into the spotlight was in 2012, when Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist in Galway had a septic miscarriage 17 weeks into her pregnancy. Savita requested an abortion when it was clear the miscarriage was inevitable, which was denied on the basis that her life wasn’t in danger. She died from a cardiac arrest caused by sepsis seven days after the miscarriage began.
The In Her Shoes campaign anonymously documents stories from Irish women affected by the eighth. The horror stories include a woman who went for a regular 23 week scan to be told her baby had no kidneys, no bladder, brain damage and spina bifida, but due to a perfectly beating heart she had to carry the baby inside her until he died on his own, or travel to Liverpool and pay for an abortion. Another describes how pregnant women with cancer have been refused chemotherapy for fear it would kill the baby, often being forced to travel to England while severely ill to obtain an abortion.
The irony of the pro-life movement is that it has been happy to watch women die since its founding. In most cases it claims to speak for the very creepily-named ‘unborn’, but often doesn’t think to focus its efforts on, for instance, child refugees who drown at sea in their hundreds.
The women of Ireland deserve better than being forced to choose between death, expensive travelling or jail-time, when in reality all they’re asking for is the right to choose what they do with their own bodies.