15 November 2011
Senator Ivana Bacik
Feminists everywhere should be very concerned to read of the recent passage through the US House of Representatives of the so-called ‘Protect Life bill’, which was initiated by a group of conservative Republicans. If it came into law, this bill would restrict women’s access to abortion and would even make it legal for hospitals to deny abortions to pregnant women with life-threatening conditions. However, the bill is not expected to pass through the Senate, and President Obama has promised to veto it.
It is a relief to know that this bill will not become law in the US, but it is shameful to know that our own abortion laws in Ireland remain far more restrictive than the most conservative US Republican could imagine. In fact, Irish law on abortion is the most restrictive in Europe. Abortion is a criminal offence under 1861 legislation, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for the woman or any person who assists her to have an abortion. In 1983, our Constitution was amended to make the right to life of ‘the unborn’ equal to that of ‘the mother’. This means that a pregnancy may only be terminated legally in Ireland in order to save the life of the pregnant woman. There is no right to abortion in any other circumstance; even where a woman or girl has been raped or abused, or is carrying a non-viable foetus.
Despite this highly repressive law, abortion is a reality in Ireland. Since abortion was legalised in Britain in 1967, more than 100,000 Irish women and girls have travelled to clinics there to obtain abortions denied to them at home. Yet these women’s stories are never told publicly in Ireland. The cultural taboo on speaking out about crisis pregnancy has been strengthened by the intimidatory tactics of the anti-choice campaigners. Abortion represents their last line of defence, since contraception and divorce were legalised in the 1990s. These conservative lobbyists, many backed by the Catholic Church, have had immense power.
Following the 1983 Amendment, these anti-abortion groups took a series of court cases which had closed down women’s counselling centres, depriving women of the right even to receive information on where to obtain abortion abroad. Across Ireland throughout the 1980s, students’ unions became the only organisations willing to publicly provide information about how to access abortion in Britain.
As President of Trinity Students’ Union in 1989-90, I carried out Union policy by giving information on abortion to women with crisis pregnancies. As a result I and others were threatened with prison by SPUC (the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) in a marathon court case. Mary Robinson (later elected President of Ireland) stepped in to defend us, and we were not sent to prison, but we lost our case initially and were faced with bankruptcy.
In 1992 came the ‘X case’. This arose when a 14 year-old pregnant rape victim, known only as X, tried to travel to England with her parents to terminate her pregnancy. The State applied to the Irish Courts to prevent her travelling abroad in order to stop her having the abortion, even though she was suicidal. People were understandably horrified at this inhumane response to the girl’s crisis. In the public outcry that followed, the Supreme Court ruled that because X was suicidal, the pregnancy posed a real and substantial risk to her life, so her pregnancy could lawfully be terminated under the Constitution.
As a result of the X case, two further amendments to the Constitution were passed in November 1992. The first allowed freedom to give information on abortion, and enabled us, finally, to win our legal case. The second allowed the right to travel for women seeking abortions. The Government also proposed a third referendum, seeking to overturn the X case by ruling out suicide risk as a ground for abortion, but thankfully this was defeated. In 2002, following more pressure from anti-abortion groups, the Government sought to pass yet another referendum to try and rule out suicide risk as a ground for abortion – but again this was defeated after a strong campaign by the Labour Party and pro-choice groups.
The law then remained stagnant, until the European Court of Human Rights gave judgment against Ireland in December 2010 in a groundbreaking case, ABC v. Ireland. The Strasbourg Court ruled that Ireland’s failure to allow abortion where a woman’s life is at risk violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case involved a woman cancer patient whose pregnancy, if it had continued, would have posed a real risk to her life. Although she should have been entitled to an abortion in Ireland under the X case, this was not made available to her, and she was forced to travel abroad. The new Fine Gael/Labour Government elected in February 2011 has promised to establish an expert group to examine how best to implement the ABC judgment.
Even before the ABC case, opinion polls show that support for legal abortion in Ireland has increased significantly in recent years. The only thing that has not changed is the lack of leadership demonstrated by successive Governments. This cowardice by legislators is due to a fear of stirring up the anger of the Catholic Church and their allies. But I believe that the conservative lobby has lost ground. Now is the time to challenge the culture of silence and hypocrisy. This Government must confront the reality of crisis pregnancy, and legislate to meet the real health needs of women.