Abortion is still illegal in Ireland in almost all circumstances. Last year over 3,500 women travelled abroad for abortion services, an average of 12 every day. Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world. Abortion is only permissible where there is a ‘real and substantial’ risk to the life of a woman, and no other treatment option is available.
From the time of the X-Case ruling in 1992, the Irish state was obliged to legislate for abortion where there is a risk to the life of the woman, including from suicide. ‘X’ was a 14-year old rape victim who was pregnant and suicidal.
Seven successive Irish governments failed to introduce the necessary legislation. In 1992 and 2002, referenda which attempted to further restrict the limited availability of abortion were defeated. Following further rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, and the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway, the current government finally moved to introduce legislation on the X-Case. The result was the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013.
The new Act clarified the situations in which doctors may legally carry out an abortion. Under the Act a suicidal woman must be assessed by a panel of three specialists before an abortion is permitted. The Act also repealed sections of The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 which had criminalised the procurement of a ‘miscarriage’ with a sentence of penal servitude. The new Act makes it illegal to access or perform an abortion outside of its very narrow scope which also criminalises the many Irish women taking pills bought online with the threat of a 14 year prison sentence. Galway Pro-Choice finds this legislation excessively punitive and disrespectful of women. It is also unlikely to prevent another tragedy like Savita Halappanavar’s from happening again.
Legislation on abortion is severely constrained by the 8th Amendment to our Constitution (Article 40.3.3°) which equates the right to life of a foetus with the right to life of a woman. This was originally introduced in 1983 and until the 8th Amendment is repealed, Ireland will continue to fail to adequately protect women.
In order to navigate this law, medical practitioners must now draw an imaginary line between when a risk to health becomes a risk to life. The case of Savita Halappanavar illustrated so tragically the difficulty in drawing that line and the 2013 Act does not allow for abortion where there is a threat to the health of the woman.
The UN Human Rights Committee recently made recommendations to Ireland regarding abortion. These included a revision of our legislation to provide for abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality, or risk to the health of the woman. They also recommended that we change our constitution before our next session at the Committee in 2019.