On May 25th, Ireland will be holding a referendum on abortion laws, more specifically on whether to repeal Article 40.3.3 of its constitution (also known as the 8th amendment). The amendment states that foetuses and women are to be given the same right to life, and hence renders abortions illegal – except in cases where women’s lives are at risk. This makes Ireland the only country in Europe with such tight laws on abortion, with the exception of Malta, where abortion is illegal in all cases.
The referendum mainly stems from the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar, and the following protests and mobilisation to repeal the amendment. Ms Halappanavar, a 31-year old dentist, died from septic shock and multi-organ failure as a result from complications from a miscarriage, as she was repeatedly refused an abortion. Her case highlighted the thin line between defining risk to a pregnant woman’s life and risk to a pregnant woman’s health, which is one of the many controversial aspects of Ireland’s current law. At present, any pregnant female in Ireland apart from the circumstances mentioned previously – let her be victim of rape, incest, undergoing a complicated or unwanted pregnancy – incurs up to 14 years in prison for terminating a pregnancy.
However, as statistics have shown in various countries, the number of abortions does not decrease where abortion is illegal, instead having an impact on the safety of those terminations: Irish women in particular resort to ordering abortion pills online, and unsafely, shamefully, taking them at home, or travelling to Britain where abortion is free under the NHS. Around 5,000 women a year travel out of Ireland to abort, but it comes at a cost that not all women can afford, including of course a heavy physical and mental toll.
In some cases, women are forced to carry a dead embryo to full term and deliver a stillborn, as would have been the case for Lupe, originally from Spain, who had been carrying a dead embryo for two months and flew back to her home country to get an abortion. In other cases, they are forced to carry out pregnancies that result from rape or incest. In 2014, an asylum seeker who was kidnapped, beaten, and raped in her home country was forced to keep, then prematurely deliver, a baby by caesarean at 25 weeks, after she threatened to go on a hunger strike in response to being repeatedly denied an abortion. The United Nations and UN Committee Against Torture have stated in the last decade that denying abortion for a pregnancy due to rape can be recognised as a form of torture. Similarly, denying abortion in cases of severe and fatal foetal impairment is considered a violation of human rights.
Abortion is undeniably an on-going debate and sensitive topic, but this referendum is a much-needed step for Ireland to bring its legislation up to a modern, and humane standard. The strong rallying of citizens for the ‘Repeal’ campaign shows the importance and relevance of this vote. While polls were giving a clear ‘Yes’ vote for the past few months, they are now narrowing and giving a less defined outcome.
While every person is entitled to their own beliefs and opinion, it does not seem empathetic to deny – and punish – abortion in all but one unclear case, on the basis of one’s individual opinion. Repeal the 8th is merely about moving on from forcing decisions and punishments upon women, to giving them access to a possibility and choice they have been so far denied, that results from deeply engrained mentalities and religious values.