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Why are politicians still pretending Ireland is an abortion-free wonderland?

While our legislators bask in their moral superiority, thousands of Irish women have to travel to the UK in order to have an abortion, says Anna Carey.

An anti-abortion protester. Photograph: Getty Images

If you’re Irish and pro-choice, you find yourself cheering for the introduction of abortion legislation that is, by the standards of most western countries, horrifically restrictive. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition government’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 allows a woman to obtain an abortion in order to save her life, including the threat of suicide. This law was too liberal for some Fine Gael TDs, including one junior minister who voted against it and has resigned her post. Perhaps most disturbingly, the law also states that anyone obtaining an abortion outside these circumstances can be given a maximum 14 year prison sentence. But for us, the fact that the bill was voted into law last night by 127 votes to 31 still counts as a small victory. Because it’s taken decades to get this far.

In 1992, the Supreme Court declared that a suicidal 14 year old rape victim referred to as Miss X had the right to an abortion under the Irish constitution, which enshrined her own right to life. In a referendum that year, the Irish people agreed with the Supreme Court that suicide counted as a threat to a woman’s life. But, fearing a conservative backlash, successive governments refused to introduce the necessary legislation, and thousands of Irish women did what they’d been doing for decades – they went to England, if they could afford it, and had their abortions there.

It took a tragedy for a bill to finally emerge – the death last year of Savita Halappanavar, whose death from septicemia, after doctors refused to carry out an abortion because the foetus she was miscarrying still had a heartbeat, highlighted the dangers of this legal limbo. Hopefully the new law will ensure this never happens again.

But there is much more work to do. For women confronted with the tragedy of a fatal foetal abnormality, for women who have been raped, for women whose health will be damaged by giving birth, for women who just do not want to have a child, nothing has changed. And nothing will, until yet another referendum manages to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the constitutional change introduced in 1983 which officially gave an Irish woman and her foetus an equal right to life. Until that amendment is removed, there is no chance of liberalising Irish abortion law. The campaign for a new referendum is underway.

When this issue is discussed abroad, much is made of the fact that Ireland is supposedly devoutly Catholic. But while 84 per cent of us claim to be Catholic, just 34 per cent actually attend Mass, and only 14 per cent of 18 to 34 year olds are regular Mass goers. Church teachings on sexual and reproductive issues are ignored by the majority of the population. A recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed that while 89 per cent supported abortion to save a woman’s life, over 80 per cent also supported abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and in cases of rape. 78 per cent said abortion should be allowed to save a woman’s health. Only 39 per cent supported abortion in cases where a woman deemed it to be in her best interest, but just 46 per cent were against this, which still isn’t a majority. Younger people were much more likely to be in favour of abortion rights.

The idea that Ireland is rabidly anti-abortion simply isn’t true – which is also proved by the thousands of Irish women who quietly go to Britain every year; official statistics released this week showed that 4,000 did so in 2012, and that only includes those who gave Irish addresses. And yet plenty of our legislators are happy to cater to well-funded religious extremists, who talk of floodgates and “abortion regimes”. They’re happy to listen to a church that still owes the Irish state €380m in compensation for sexual abuse victims. They’re happy to pretend that Ireland is an abortion-free wonderland. And while they ignore the increasingly liberal public and bask in their moral superiority, thousands of women will quietly get on a plane and let the country next door take care of them.

Read Sarah Ditum on how Ireland has avoided confronting its repressive laws by exporting its abortions.