In the News 2018

In Catholic Ireland, legal abortion is a genuine prospect

  • Decision could end the need for Irish women to travel for a termination
  • Proposed law would allow abortions up to 12th week of pregnancy
  • ‘Don’t knows’, at 20 percent, will determine the outcome
  • Confusion between Catholic doctrine and hierarchy’s pronouncements
  • 2013 legislation failed to settle the question

In 2016, 25 women had legal abortions in the Republic of Ireland, the European country famed for Guinness and its easygoing capital Dublin. In that same year, 3,265 women from Ireland traveled over the Irish Sea to England and Wales to have abortions. The procedure is available in only very limited cases in the republic. But that could all change after a historic public vote on abortion law in May.

Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. Traveling overseas for an abortion is not forbidden there, but terminating a pregnancy in the country including with abortion pills ordered online, now a popular method (Irish Times), is illegal in nearly all cases. Unlike most other European countries, even rape or incest do not qualify a woman for an abortion.

The country, rooted in Catholicism but increasingly secular, has long been divided on the topic. Though historically taboo and a subject to avoid at the dinner table across Ireland, frequent marches, protests, and even advertising campaigns (The Times) have inflamed passionate supporters and critics, bringing the abortion debate out in the open. It is even more discussed now that it looks as if legal abortion is within reach weeks before voters go to the polls.

As the build-up to the referendum on abortion on May 25 intensifies, advocates are dusting off placards and putting up posters on lampposts. They’re also launching new campaigns, and taking to the internet and the streets to express their support for, and opposition to, abortion.

Irish society is “polarized” about abortion and there are few places where there is “any meaningful interaction between those two sides,” said Sara O’Sullivan, a sociologist at University College Dublin who is currently undergoing research on how social media is being used by abortion rights activists.

On the one side against abortion there are traditional Catholics but also right-wing intellectuals like columnist David Quinn and his people at the Iona Institute, a Catholic advocacy group. Support for repeal is made up of mainly younger, urban, female and higher income voters (The Guardian).

Despite a very public divide between those who want women to be able to access abortion if they need it – often known as “pro-choice” although “abortion rights activist” is more neutral – and those who oppose legal abortion – usually characterized as “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” – it looks as if voters will decide to vote to liberalize Irish abortion laws.

A voter poll from April 20 indicated that 47 percent would vote to allow women to terminate pregnancies up to 12 weeks, a move that would turn the tide on women’s reproductive rights in the country. This was lower than the same voter poll from the Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI in January, but the repeal campaign is still in the “driving seat,” the newspaper said.

The referendum will ask voters whether they want to repeal the Eighth Amendment, a part of the Irish constitution that enshrines the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, and “provision be made in law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy” (Irish Times).

The “don’t-knows” though will be the body of Irish who swing the vote, commentators, advocates, and politicians say. The 20 percent who are still undecided are expected to meander towards voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment (Irish Times).

Abortion in reach in a divided Ireland

The focal point of religious ethics and women’s rights battles in Ireland remains the Eighth Amendment, enacted in 1983 after a referendum on the rights to life of the unborn. The Republic’s traditional Catholics have come head-to-head on myriad occasions with abortion rights advocates, whose disagreements on abortion have made it one of the most hostile debates in the country.

Before the 1970s when the political campaign for women’s reproductive rights kicked into action, the Catholic belief system dictated how people in Ireland think of abortion, said O’Sullivan. “There wasn’t any understanding of reproductive rights except amongst a minority of campaigners.”

One success of the “Repeal” campaign is how it has made Irish society more open to discussion abortion, said O’Sullivan. “They’ve changed the kinds of ways people are discussing [abortion] by [revealing] people’s stories,” she adds, saying abortion was previously discussed in a more abstract or theological way.

Prominent case studies used by campaigns to repeal the Eighth Amendment include Savita Halappanavar in 2012, who was denied a termination and died. Also the case of a brain-dead woman who was kept on life support in December 2014 against the wishes of her family because she was pregnant.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was enacted in 2013 following Halappanavar’s death to allow terminations in cases where the pregnancy endangered the mother’s life. The law included the risk of suicide as a mortal condition but does not permit abortion in cases of rape or incest. But critics say it made abortion regulation even more complex, symbolizing Ireland’s entanglement of arguments on life, pregnancy, and women’s rights.

Tangled history

The long and tangled history of abortion debate in Ireland has been a “great longstanding tiff,” said sociologist Sara O’Sullivan.

But a series of deaths of mothers and infants that were attributed to the country’s conservative abortion rules have sparked calls to make abortion available to women who need it.

Ireland’s drift towards liberalization is symbolized by its prime minister (Taoiseach), Leo Varadkar, Time magazine said in its 100 most influential people of 2018 list. The son of an Indian immigrant and openly gay, the once-anti abortion politician said he would campaign for reforming Irish abortion law. The national Parliament (Oireachtas) Committee on the Eighth Amendment also recommended allowing abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy (Irish Times).

But there are some areas in which a conversation about abortion wouldn’t go down smoothly.

In northern county Roscommon, the only area in Ireland that voted against gay marriage in a 2015 referendum, interviewees on RTÉ Radio 1 on April 23 said still nobody wants to talk about abortion there. The Irish Times reports that, for the abortion referendum, the county has “a lot of silent Yes voters who are afraid to say openly they will vote Yes.”

WikiTribune attempted to interview representatives from four groups who are campaigning to keep the Eighth Amendment, but so far we have been unsuccessful.

Catholics for Choice

The melting pot of theological thinkers who also support abortion includes Catholics for Choice, a religious advocacy group that supports advancing reproductive rights for women.

“There’s a lot of confusion about the differences between what the church hierarchy says, and what is actually church doctrine,” said Amanda Ussak, the international program director for Catholics for Choice.

The Catholic Church itself supports the Eighth Amendment and has actively called on Ireland’s Catholics to vote to keep it (The Guardian). But not all Catholics support the strict rules, said Ussak.

“One of the central tenets of Catholic teachings on moral decision-making is the Primacy of Conscience, that Catholics are obliged to follow their individual conscience,” which allows some Catholics to support abortion, or other things the church itself may not, she said.

But Catholic support for abortion rights may not mirror the staunchly pro-abortion views of some groups. “Voting for a repeal is not the same thing as voting to support abortion,” said Ussak, explaining that some Catholics support women having autonomy to make decisions rather than abortion itself.

If abortion is legalized in Ireland

If the country votes to repeal the Eighth Amendment, it could take up to six months until pregnant Irish women are able to walk into a doctor’s surgery in the Republic to obtain a legal abortion, said Ailbhe Smyth, the co-director of pro-abortion rights group Together For Yes and convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment, Ireland’s collective of groups who want to relax abortion law.

Repealing the amendment “opens up the path to making provisions to meet women’s needs,” Smyth said. However, there is “no doubt that there would be a great deal of work to be done.” A new law would have to be enacted to allow abortion in Ireland and services would be put in place to ensure women could genuinely access it, she explains.

Advocacy groups including Together for Yes would also continue to work to ensure legal abortion services are implemented after the referendum, Smyth said.

But how it seems now may not be how the referendum itself plays out.

“Over the past 18 to 24 months the polls have consistently indicated that people do favor a repeal of the Eighth Amendment … but that’s not to say that things can’t change because things can change in a referendum,” said Smyth. “You never know when a vote is going to strike you from out of the deep blue sky.”

As Ireland moves to hand over abortion legislation decisions to the public, other nations with similar backgrounds of dissent and divide are maneuvring to change laws on pregnancy terminations since outgrowths of women’s movements. Argentina, Pope Francis’s home country and deeply Catholic, is set to hold a debate on legalization after protests and shifting public opinion towards more liberal laws (The New York Times).

Equally, New Zealand may decide to change its abortion law after justice minister Andrew Little called on the Law Commission to review whether the country’s abortion laws could be altered to make them more a health matter than a criminal matter (New Zealand Herald), a notion that is more in line with how women’s movements view abortion.

This article was originally published by WikiTribune.

Catholics for Choice