Why should Irish politicians rely on women travelling to the UK for an abortion to get them out of a hole?
The Irish are having yet another referendum on abortion on 6 March 2002 – their third in under 19 years. At the behest of the ruling coalition, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, voters will be asked to consider amending their Constitution again, with the proposed amendment giving the green light to a new Abortion Act for Ireland (1).
Clause 1.1 of the proposed new Act defines abortion as ‘the intentional destruction by any means of unborn human life after implantation in the womb of a woman’. Clause 1.2 provides that an abortion is not an abortion, if it involves the carrying out of a medical procedure ‘at an approved place’ and if, in the reasonable opinion of a medical practitioner, it is ‘necessary to prevent a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life other than by self-destruction’ – intended to prevent suicidal women with unwanted
pregnancies from getting abortions in Ireland. Clause 2.1 says that ‘No person shall carry out or effect an abortion in the State’ (a blanket ban, in other words) – and the maximum penalty for carrying out an abortion will be 12 years (clause 2.3).
According to Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, if people do not vote in favour of the referendum Ireland will go down the road of ‘liberal abortion’ (2). He claims to be standing up for the right to life of the unborn, ‘whether it’s old-fashioned or not, conservative or not’. But the political reality is rather more complex.
Ahern faces a general election shortly. His Fianna Fáil party failed to win an outright majority at the last election, and his coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, number just four. In a country where elections are conducted by single transferable vote, the views of the self-styled ‘pro-life’ lobby carry some weight with politicians seeking to get back into power, and this lobby has been agitating for a referendum for some years.
Ahern’s situation is ironic, since he does not fit the stereotype of a conservative
Catholic. He is separated from his wife (though not divorced), lives with another woman, and refuses to alter his domestic arrangements (3). His deputy prime minister and leader of the Progressive Democrats Mary Harney will also vote Yes in the referendum. Apparently her party allows ‘a free vote on moral issues and issues of conscience’ (4). So why shouldn’t a woman who wants an abortion also make her own decisions on moral issues and matters of conscience?
The main aim of the referendum is to roll back what is known in Ireland as the ‘X case of 1992 (5) – the case involving a 14-year-old who became pregnant after being raped by the father of a schoolfriend. Initially, the Irish High Court injuncted her and her parents from travelling to England for an abortion, with the judge invoking a notorious provision in the Constitution dating from 1983: ‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother [sic], guarantees in its laws to respect and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’ (6) The girl threatened to kill herself if she could not have an abortion, and the Irish Supreme Court ruled by a majority that she was entitled to an abortion in Ireland, in order to vindicate her right to life. After the X case, it seemed that rape victims seeking abortions had to play the suicide card (7).
The number of Irishwomen who have abortions in England and Wales is rising steadily, almost doubling in the past 20 years. The table below was compiled by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) (8), and is far more detailed than the table published in the Irish Government’s 1999 Green Paper on Abortion (9). According to IFPA, between January 1980 and December 1999, at least 85,559 Irish women had abortions in Britain.
The IFPA table is based on official British statistics compiled by the UK Office for National Statistics on an annual and quarterly basis. IFPA’s estimated number for 2001 is 7000 (10) – while according to anti-abortion group Galway for Life, abortions now account for over 10 percent of Irish pregnancies (11).
Irishwomen seeking abortion in the UK do so under the 1967 Abortion Act – and 99.7 percent of their abortions are carried out on the grounds that continuing the pregnancy involves a risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the woman’s physical or mental health, or that of an existing child (12).
Having an abortion in the UK doesn’t come cheap, though: as well as the cost of the abortion (between £315 and £725 depending on length of gestation (13)), women from Ireland also have to pay for travel and accommodation. This creates a two-tier system: the poor and the young in Ireland cannot access UK abortion services, while better-off women can. Abortion is taboo, so women have to invent excuses for travelling. And as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has pointed out, the fact that a woman is staying away from home may narrow her choice of abortion methods (14). For many Irishwomen, early medical abortion, which requires two visits to a clinic over a 48-hour period, will not be practicable.
There is no sanction in Ireland for women travelling abroad for terminations. So much for the esteem in which the Irish state claims to hold the unborn’s ‘right to life’. Following the X case, the Irish Constitution was amended in 1992 to provide that Article 40.3.3 ‘shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state’. The travel option remains the lynchpin of Irish government policy on abortion. If it were not for the availability of abortion courtesy of the UK, the Irish government would almost certainly have faced a challenge to its ban on domestic abortions in the European Court of Human Rights.
Still, the absence of any legal challenge to date is remarkable. If push came to shove, the European Court of Human Rights would be unlikely to wear the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) argument – that women who want abortions must travel abroad to get them, even child victims of rape. Maybe the Irish authorities think that no woman will ever complain to the European court – if so, it is surely time to challenge such complacency.
The NIMBY argument is morally and intellectually bankrupt. Why should Irish politicians rely on abortion traffic to the UK to get them out of a hole? Perhaps they hope that, if middle-class women can access abortion abroad, the lid can be kept on this political powder-keg. But the table above suggests that the Irish authorities should provide a domestic solution to women’s abortion needs. According to a report of a recent poll carried out by the umbrella group Abortion Reform, a majority of people believe that Irishwomen seeking abortions should be facilitated at home (15).
Nor can the Irish authorities invoke religion as a pretext for their draconian laws, as Ireland is no longer a country where everybody toes the Catholic line. It is increasingly secularised and consumerist – you only have to go into an Irish church to see that numbers attending Mass have declined dramatically. When I was young, Sunday Mass in Ireland used to be a crush. Now priests resort to desperate ruses to get people to come to church – like last Christmas Eve in County Galway, when I attended a Mass only to see the priest pretending to receive a call on his mobile phone from Santa Claus. Sad, or what?
For Irish politicians to propose banning abortion is really no different from politicians proposing to ban alcohol or gay sex. It is legitimate in such circumstances to ask politicians: have you had an abortion? Has anybody in your family had an abortion? It remains to be seen whether any organisation in Ireland is prepared to put these questions to the nation’s representatives. An Irish journalist told me recently: ‘we have a very strong tradition here of not examining politicians’ private lives.’ But when Irish politicians bring forward measures impacting so severely on others’ private lives, they cannot shield their own lives from public scrutiny.
It also remains to be seen whether women in Ireland, who have had what their prime minister calls ‘liberal abortion’, will emerge from purdah and speak out. It is time Irishwomen en masse started telling politicians and other busybodies to stop dictating to them on matters of personal morality.
Barbara Hewson is a barrister at Hardwicke Civil
Why Ireland said No, by Wendy Earle
(1) See the Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2001
(2) Irish Times, 8 February 2002
(3) ‘Celia and I: It will not happen, says Ahern’, Sunday Independent, 10 February 2002
(4) ‘Harney will vote Yes in Referendum’, Irish Times, 11 February 2002
(5) 1 Irish Reports 1 (1992)
(6) Irish Constitution, Article 40.3.3
(7) See the 1997 case of C, a 13-year old rape victim
(8) See Irish abortion statistics on the Irish Family Planning Association website
(9) See the Green Paper on Abortion, available from the publications section of the Government of Ireland website
(10) ‘Rise in Numbers having abortions’, Irish Times, 24 August 2001
(11) See Abortion Statistics on the Galway for Life website
(12) All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, Fifth Progress Report, November 2000, p86
(13) See the British Pregnancy Advisory Service website
(14) BPAS Submissions to All-Party Oireachtas Committee, November 1999, on the British Pregnancy Advisory Service website
(15) ‘Irish shouldn’t have to travel for abortion – poll’, Irish Times, 1 June 2001
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