Let Them Be Punished? A Fight To Free Safe Legal Abortion

By now, you’ll have heard that Donald Trump is running for President of the United States of America. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (in which case, lucky you), you’ll have observed that his campaign has been brash, offensive, and discriminatory in just about every way possible – racism, sexism, and a whole pack of incitement to hatred thrown in for good measure. Recently, he made a statement which caught my eye more than the others – and given the dramatics he’s come out with, that is really saying something. Upon being interviewed in Wisconsin lately, he stated that women who seek abortion should be subject to “some form of punishment.” Media uproar ensued. Women’s rights activists lamented and shouted. Here in Ireland, we looked on at the potential new leader of a world superpower condemning his country to our current state: where women’s choice in their reproductive rights is limited and intrinsically linked with the opinions of people whose lives it will never affect.

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Roe V Wade, the landmark decision which legalised abortion in the United States, was made in 1973. It has allowed women to receive legal, safe abortions, and maintain control of their bodies and reproductive rights. In Ireland, the 8th amendment, brought into law in 1983, gave women and the unborn foetus equal rights to life – thus criminalising abortion in the Republic of Ireland. Despite changes in mood in Irish society over the last 33 years, The X Case (which took 20 years to legislate for), and changes to legislation brought in in 2013 to allow for abortion in the most limited of circumstances (risk to the life of the mother, though not risk to the health of the mother), we are still living in a country which does not respect a woman’s right to choose if or when she will procreate. The 8th amendment, Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, states:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

The changes made in 2013 were made 20 years after the initial Supreme Court ruling which stated that in the case of a “real and substantial risk” to the life of the mother, abortion may be allowed. For all other cases, we have been allowed the right to travel. The right to leave our country, our home, the support of our loved ones, to receive healthcare which our own doctors cannot legally administer. This includes victims of rape or incest, fatal foetal abnormalities and cases where while not life threatening at this stage, the pregnancy continuing will cause a largely detrimental effect to the health of the mother, as well as those who simply are choosing to not continue their pregnancy. These laws have seen horrors like the case of the young mother who at 15 weeks pregnant was declared legally brain dead at Christmas time in 2014, yet was not allowed to be put to rest and end life-maintaining interventions until a case to switch off the machines was put to the High Court by the woman’s family. Despite their wishes for her ordeal to be ended, due to the still living 15 week old foetus not reaching viability yet, legally the doctors were tied. It should not have taken 20 days for the wishes of the family to be taken into account in their time of grief, for what the High Court ruled as a “futile exercise”. In legislation signed into law late last year, this was not repealed but further engrained into law. While you may have advanced directives for your healthcare in place, directing what you want to happen if the worst happens, the existence of a pregnancy negates all of your rights in this regard and it is put to those treating you that they should ignore refusal of treatment unless instructed to do so by the High Court. The pain felt by that family will be felt by other families because of this decision. The Savita case in 2012 too was an eye-opener. Despite knowledge that no actions which could be taken would save the unborn foetus from inevitable miscarriage, Savita and her husband were denied the abortion they asked for to end her suffering due to the existence of a foetal heartbeat. This lengthened the process and leading to an infection which took the life of the bright young woman. The rights of the unborn outweigh those of the living in our country, and despite a growing movement to Repeal the 8th Amendment and allow for safe, legal abortion, we are getting nowhere fast.

Currently there is a case in the media, that of a young woman from Northern Ireland, who obtained pills to induce an abortion illegally in Belfast. Despite Northern Ireland technically being a member of the United Kingdom, where such an abortion is a legal, safe option, in Northern Ireland it still remains illegal. This leaves those who wish to obtain an abortion the choice to travel, if they have the means, or to obtain the pills illegally. This was the option this girl faced, at 19 and in distress at being unable to afford to travel to another part of the UK to avail of a legal, safe abortion. She ordered pills online, miscarried, and told her housemates what she had done. They reported her to the PSNI, stating that they were “taken back by the seemingly blasé attitude” which she had about the process. It seems that her reaction to her actions wasn’t appropriate and therefore they felt it necessary to report her for her crime. This week she has been sentenced to three months in jail, suspended for one year. The maximum sentence in Northern Ireland is a life sentence, the sentence for the same crime in the Republic of Ireland is 14 years imprisonment. The government declares a lack of a problem because it is able to outsource it to our neighbours, through boats and planes and clinics who show their understanding for our situation by offering a reduced rate for Irish patients. If this is the kind of thing Donald Trump has in mind, I worry for the future of the United States of America if he is to be elected.

Ireland is slowly but surely wriggling free of it’s strict Catholic morality dictating its legislature. I am hopeful that the Repeal the 8th movement will be successful in engaging a nation in realising that affording women basic healthcare rights like many other countries worldwide is the next necessary step in our modern society. The last few weeks have been a bit of a wake up call in showing that it in no way will be plain sailing from here – despite the feeling of a new level of openness about abortion in society, led by women like Tara Flynn and Roisin Ingle telling their stories of having to leave their country in order to end their unwanted pregnancies, and the horrific tales of the families who had to travel to terminate their much wanted pregnancies due to fatal foetal abnormality, we still have far to go.


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