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On May 26, 2018, the Irish people made a landmark decision by voting overwhelmingly in a referendum to repeal the country’s constitution, specifically the Eighth Amendment, which had outlawed abortion of any form.
However, despite this historic constitutional change and a win for women’s rights, pregnant women are yet to enjoy the full benefits of this new law. Such deserving women are struggling to access abortion services across the region due to several underlying factors standing on their way. First, despite the new law coming into place over fifteen months ago, there is an extensive lack of facilities offering such services. Second, the law is specific that abortions can only take place with a certain timeframe after which it becomes illegal. Third, anti-abortion proponents have waged continuous campaigns to discredit the law and some of their activities are criminal in nature thus scaring away women who would want to abort.
Finally, Irish society is mainly pro-life with an enduring legacy of shame on matters abortion; hence, women are discouraged from aborting due to the associated stigmatisation. These factors work in concert to prevent women from enjoying the benefits of the new law and exercising their freedom of choice. The purpose of this paper is to review the available literature on this controversial issue of abortion in Ireland. The referenced used were found online using the Boolean search strategy with the following keywords – Ireland, law, abortion, constitution, and referendum. The selected articles had a long string of the keywords and exclusion criteria also focused on the date of publication.
Abortion in Ireland is a highly controversial issue despite the May 26, 2018 landslide victory, which saw the repealing of the Eighth Amendment of the constitution to allow women to abort albeit under certain circumstances. The controversy surrounding this topic can be understood from a historical perspective of the country’s culture, beliefs, and legal provisions. According to Kenny (2018), Ireland is mainly a conservative society with the majority of citizens being Catholics – by the end of 2016; this cohort presented 78 per cent of the entire population. The Eighth Amendment was passed in the early 1980s to outlaw any prospects of abortion. However, Kenny (2018) argues that, at the time, there was no existential threat to the country’s laws that necessitated such a constitutional change.
Therefore, the motive behind the Eighth Amendment was not constitutional, but socio-cultural one backed by religious dogmas. Kenny (2018) posits, “The 1960s and 70s in Ireland had seen a drift away from certain aspects of Catholic social morality, and the Constitution as interpreted by the courts had played some role in this” (p. 259). Therefore, religious adherents saw the Eighth Amendment as an opportunity to reassert Catholic teachings and morals by enshrining them in the constitution. This argument could explain why the current Irish society is mostly pro-life hence the outright rejection of the new law allowing abortion, thus making it a controversial issue.
Taylor, Spillane, and Arulkumaran (2019) address the issue of abortion in Ireland by taking a historical journey to contextualise the current situation and offer a way forward moving into the future. Before, the repealing of the Eighth Amendment in May 2018, procuring abortion was only allowed under extreme cases, specifically whereby the mother’s life, not health, was in danger. Under this punitive law, any other form of abortion was a criminal offence attracting up to 14 years’ imprisonment (Taylor, Spillane, & Arulkumaran 2019).
Starting from the late 2000s, individuals buying abortion pills from the international market risked prosecution. However, with the enactment of the Health Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Act in December 2018, women and girls can access abortion services from healthcare facilities across the country. Such services are even advertised in the public transport system in all places in the country.
However, Taylor, Spillane, and Arulkumaran (2019) warn that the journey toward the liberalisation of abortion in Ireland is far from over and concerted efforts are needed from all stakeholders to ensure that women benefit from the gains of this new legislation. Like Kenny (2018), Taylor, Spillane, and Arulkumaran (2019) trace the history of the controversy surrounding the abortion issue in Ireland to the Offences against the Person Act 1861, which criminalised abortion. The insertion of the Eighth Amendment was motivated by Catholic conservatism and activists fearing that Ireland courts would follow a ruling by the United States’ Supreme Court allowing abortion (Taylor, Spillane, and Arulkumaran, 2019).
However, in 2002, prochoice proponents started campaigning for liberalisation of abortion by framing reproductive health as a human rights issue as opposed to being a political one. Taylor, Spillane, and Arulkumaran (2019) argue that moving forward, the focus should shift to conducting evidence-based research and collecting public health data as part of continuing reform efforts to ensure that abortion, as a human right, is fully secured into the law.
Nevertheless, despite the commendable change of law repealing the Eighth Amendment and allow women to make choices on whether to abort or not albeit under some restrictions, Hogan (2019) warns that the battle is far from over. Anti-abortionists in the country have resorted to insidious, at times violent, tactics to block the implementation of the new law allowing women to abort. Pro-life adherents are not convinced about the principles behind the new law, and thus they hold on to their firm beliefs that life starts at conception. Consequently, abortion should only occur when the life of the mother is in danger.
Hogan (2019) posits, “while the law may have changed, many people are still struggling to access abortions in Ireland due to a lack of provision, the time restrictions on terminations, the illegal activities of anti-abortion campaigners – and an enduring legacy of shame” (para. 1). Anti-abortionists continue to hold vigils at health facilities offering abortion services, which imply that anyone going in has to brave humiliation and backlash from scores of protestors using unorthodox demonstration strategies including child-sized coffins as props.
This culture of intimidation, according to Hogan (2019), is hinged on strong cultural beliefs from Catholic ideologies, which motivated the introduction of the Eighth Amendment in 1983. These sentiments are consistent with arguments by Kenny (2018) that religious beliefs, specifically ideologies embedded in Catholicism, are the main contributing factors standing in the way of full adoption of the new law.
Based on the evidence drawn from news sources, it is clear that anti-abortionists in Ireland are unlikely to relent on their quest to have the Eighth Amendment upheld effectively preventing women from aborting. However, it is important to understand the founding principles that pro-life adherents base their arguments and have a holistic view of the issue. In a protest held on January 7, 2019, protestors camping outside the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda highlighted some of the issues that could be useful for this debate. Some said, “I deeply and profoundly care about the right to life of every human being…We are here because we believe hospitals need to be places of care through compassion” (Finn 2019, para. 2). Moreover, their placards carried important information – “‘Abortion is murder’, ‘Let him be born ’,‘ killing in progresses, and ‘Let her be born’” (Finn 2019, para. 3). The message here is clear that, according to pro-lifers, abortion amounts to murder, which contravenes the right to life.
It is thus unlawful and unethical to allow one person to take away the life of the other in the pretext of upholding rights to freedom of choice. Away from the streets to the boardrooms, the message is the same. Delay (2019) argues that the history and current status of pro-life agenda in Ireland is long and complicated and it draws from similar movements around the globe. In essence, “throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, anti-choice activists defined all Irish women as innately innocent, moral, and naturally desirous of domesticity and motherhood” (Delay 2019, p. 312).
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In other words, the idea of abortion is not Irish, according to anti-choice movement in the country. The argument has been that abortion does not free women as alleged, but it is a ploy by a patriarchal society to abscond its duty of taking care of women and offering them equal economic and social opportunities (Delay 2019).
Backed with feminist views, the debate about abortion takes a socio-economic path focusing on oppression that women have suffered for long even in the modern times where gender equality should be the norm.
For instance, feminist pro-lifers argue that instead of giving women free access to abortion services, they should be armed with what they need to survive as mothers, both economically and socially including inexpensive childcare, friendly maternity leave terms, and safe workplaces to protect mothers and their children among other related factors (Delay 2019). Similarly, in some case, pregnancy occurs after rape and thus in such circumstances, the problem is not pregnancy but rape. Consequently, women need to be protected from such social vices as a way of empowering them as opposed to offering access to abortion, which is tantamount to dealing with symptoms instead of treating the cause of a disease. These arguments continue to shape the debate surrounding abortion in Ireland thus contributing significantly to the underlying controversies.
However, it is important to contextualise what would happen should the new law on abortion in Ireland is not implemented effectively or repealed based on calls from anti-abortion movements. Clarke (2019) recounts experience of one woman named Miss D and the challenges she faced when she tried to procure abortion abroad in 2007. Her case was surrounded by extenuating circumstances namely she became pregnant at the tender age of 16 years and scans showed the baby would be born with a congenital disorder – anencephaly (Clarke 2019).
However, despite these circumstances, Miss D was discouraged from terminating the pregnancy because it was a criminal offence and everyone involved in it would be prosecuted. Women seeking abortion services would have to contend with such issues if the new law is not effected and supported as required. Aiken et al. (2019) carried a phenomenological study to understand lived-experiences of Irish women seeking abortion services abroad before the Eighth Amendment was repealed. The findings of this study showed that such women lacked the requisite pre-and post-abortion support in Ireland and out of desperation, some of them would contemplate using dangerous methods to terminate pregnancies this endangering their health and lives.
The repealing of the Eighth Amendment through a referendum on May 26, 2018, gave women in Ireland the much-awaited reprieve to make personal choices concerning abortion. The Eighth Amendment was enacted in 1983 under the influence of Catholic religious dogmas, and it has been the legal reference point when addressing the controversial topic of abortion in Ireland.
However, despite the newfound freedom to choose whether to abort or not and access such services anywhere in the country, the new law is surrounded by controversy with prolife adherents seeking to overturn the referendum consensus. Consequently, protestors have been demonstrating outside healthcare facilities that offer abortion services to shame and intimidate women seeking such services. In some cases, these protests become violent endearing the lives of innocent women seeking to exercise their freedom of choice. The available literature shows that the anti-abortion attitudes in the country are rooted in Christian beliefs and other prolife underlying principles.
Anti-choice feminists also add to the controversy by arguing from a socio-economic perspective to castigate abortion as a tool to continue oppressing women by denying them equality. Ultimately, both sides of the controversial debate have valid points that should be heard and interpreted within the big picture of the sanctity of human life, the right to freedom of choice, and similar perspectives for a healthy society.
Aiken, A. R, Johnson, D. M, Broussard, K & Padron, E 2019, ‘Experiences of women in Ireland who accessed abortion by travelling abroad or by using abortion medication at home: a qualitative study’, BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 1-11.
Clarke, V. 2019, Miss D told she would face murder charges if she travelled for abortion. Web.
Delay, C 2019, ‘Wrong for womankind and the nation: Anti-abortion discourses in 20th-century Ireland’, Journal of Modern European History, 17(3), 312-325.
Hogan, C 2019, Why Ireland’s battle over abortion is far from over. Web.
Kenny, D 2018, ‘Abortion, the Irish Constitution, and constitutional change’, Journal of Constitutional Investigations, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 257-275.
Taylor, M, Spillane, A & Arulkumaran, S 2019, ‘The Irish journey: removing the shackles of abortion restrictions in Ireland’, Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics and Gynaecology, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-13.