Ireland: New legislation allows abortion for the first time

Would you call it the evolution or the revolution, and why, in terms of the debate about the abortion in Ireland? Read few comments.

Niamh Reilly, Senior Lecturer and Co-director of the Global Women’s Studies Programme at the School of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway

The expected passage of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill is a significant step for the Irish political establishment that has for some time lagged behind public opinion, which can be described as “moderately pro-choice” in 2013. But, it cannot be called a revolution for women’s reproductive rights. The new law if passed will simply codify that pregnant women in Ireland have a right to a termination of pregnancy when there is a real and substantial risk to their life including a risk of suicide in line with the 1992 X Case decision of the Irish Supreme Court. This does not introduce “the right to choose” for women in any sense — the decision to terminate a pregnancy can only be made by medical personnel under extremely narrow conditions. It does make clear that a pregnant woman or girl who believes her life is at risk has a right to have her claim considered and responded to (in response to the 2010 ABC European Court of Human Rights judgment). If a complication of pregnancy presents a threat of imminent death, one medical practitioner can decide to terminate; if the threat to her life is indirect and relating to a medical condition other than the pregnancy (e.g., cancer), then two medical practitioners must agree to a termination; if the threat stems from a suicide risk, the woman or girl must appear before a panel of 3 medical pracitioners, and if refused a termination, can appeal to a further panel of 3 different practitioners.

It is impossible to interpret the provisions of this bill as anything but extremely restrictive when compared to other “liberal democratic” countries — when passed, Ireland will simply confirm in law that it remains among the 2-3 most restrictive countries in Europe and the 20 or so most restrictive in the world. The bill does not change the situation for women such as Savita Halapanavaar whose life was not considered to be at immediate risk by the medical staff who were treating her when she presented at Galway University Hospital in Oct 2012 with inevitable miscarriage, was refused a termination and subsequently died of related sepsis. This law does not address the situation of the 4,000+ women and girls who travel from Ireland each year mainly to the UK to terminate pregnancies for a wide range of reasons (including wishing to end pregnancies resulting from rape and incest and fatal fetal abnormalities). It does not address the growing related situation of women in Ireland resorting to purchasing abortion medications online. In addition, it remains to be seen if the new legislation, in practice translate into new delays to acting swiftly to save the lives of pregnant women where a conflict arises between her life and the life of the fetus/”unborn.” On balance, as long as the constitutional provision article 40.3.3 remains, which equates the right to life of the fetus/”unborn” to the right to life of the pregnant woman or girl, it is likely that we will see further needless tragedies involving women/girls who experience health- and life-threatening difficulties in pregnancy in this jurisdiction.

Lisa SmythLecturer in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast

I think the passage of this legislation can be understood as an important step in the direction of a moral revolution, because it weakens the long established status of the abortion ban as a moral emblem of national identity. The more complex legal arrangements being put in place makes it very difficult to make simplistic claims about collective morality, and therefore collective culture. The effort that this legislation makes to depoliticise the issue by treating it primarily as a health rather than a moral matter does mark an important transformation in the framing of this debate, and a step towards a more liberal society. Moral revolutions tend to develop slowly, however, and this change is an important and dramatic episode in a longer-term process. However, the legislation does continue to treat pregnant women and girls as irrelevant to the process of decision making over pregnancy, and provides for abortion access only in very limited circumstances, a deeply regrettable state of affairs which will do little to address the needs of those thousands who find themselves travelling to Britain and Europe every year to terminate pregnancies.

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