Why Ireland needs a referendum on abortion

As it stands, Ireland is presenting two faces to the world: one is as the country which celebrated LGBT rights in May, and one as a place that forces women to go abroad to have control over their own bodies.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In May of this year, the world’s eyes were on Ireland as it became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. As Dublin city centre erupted into a sea of rainbow flags, kissing couples and spontaneous proposals, it seemed that after centuries of fierce Catholicism and socially conservative culture Ireland was transforming into a progressive and modern liberal society. 

Watching the celebrations unfold, many felt that the same-sex marriage referendum marked a turning point not just for the LGBT community but for wider Irish society. One group in particular which was watching with keen interest was the country’s pro-choice movement. If a compelling case could be put forward for LGBT rights, could the same now be feasibly be done for abortion rights?

Abortion remains entirely illegal in the Republic of Ireland, unless a woman’s life is deemed to be in serious danger. A1983 referendum enshrined in Irish law the country’s that “the life of the unborn” is equal to that of “the mother”.

Not only does this mean that no one under the age of 50 has been able to vote on the issue, but Irish society has changed immeasurably since 1983. For instance, gay sex was illegal until 1993, yet same-sex marriage has just been legalised. Pro-choice activists are optimistic that if such a cultural shift can happen with attitudes towards gay and bisexual people then attitudes towards abortion may also have been revolutionised since the last vote.

Last week, an estimated 10,000 women and men marched on Dublin city centre to demand a new referendum on abortion. As a backdrop to their shouts of “free, safe, legal abortion now” and “we can’t wait”, a steady roll of wheels could be heard clicking on the tarmac as some activists carried suitcases with them to represent the estimated 170,000 Irish women who have travelled overseas to access terminations.

Women have also begun sharing their stories in the Irish media in a bid to break down stigma and put a human face on otherwise abstract theological and ethical arguments. Irish Times columist Roisin Ingle explained why she felt the time had finally come for her to share her story. She wrote: “Why am I writing this? Because I want to be a part, however small, of the campaign to change abortion legislation in this country. Because if my daughters ever come to me and say they are pregnant when they don’t want to be, I don’t want them to have to get a boat or a train or a plane...I want them to have a choice. Because most countries in Europe give women that choice. Just not the one in which I live.”

Other women have been sharing their stories online at shareyourabortionstory.tumblr.com.  From scared teenagers to distraught mothers of already large families, the testimonies make for a disturbing catalogue of all the many ways in which Ireland’s outdated abortion laws punish women.

Earlier this month, further pressure was put on the Irish government as a refugee, known only as Ms Y, revealed she is suing the government for human rights abuses after she was denied an abortion. She became pregnant after being raped and was refused a termination in Ireland. She was unable to travel abroad to access one because her asylum seeker status meant she could not legally travel overseas. Distraught, she went on hunger strike in an attempt to change the doctors’ minds and induce a miscarriage herself. Doctors force-fed her in hospital and then performed a caesaran section her to deliver the baby at 26 weeks. The baby has since been placed in care.

For many, the case was seen as encapsulating the barbarity of Ireland’s laws. That Ms Y is now taking legal action against the state for her treatment has given further momentum to the pro-choice movement as it pushes for a new referendum to be held.

A general election is due to take place this winter in Ireland. While a date has yet to be set, early indications suggest that it will be held at some point in November. Amid the growing pro-choice movement, pressure will be on Ireland’s politicians to finally address the issue of abortion rights and pledge a new referendum on the issue. 

As it stands, Ireland is presenting two faces to the world: one is as the country which celebrated LGBT rights in May and was heralded a champion of progessive, liberal human rights and the other is as the country which forced a suicidal rape victim to give birth. Abortion rights in Ireland have lain neglected for too long, a referendum secured by the growing pro-choice movement could mean the country finally catches up on its duty to women.

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.