Abortion in Ireland – Did You Know?
I went down to this little child, because she was a child… I got down on my knees in the aisle, and I asked her was she ok? She said, “No”. She was upset, and she said, she had had an abortion that afternoon in London. Now if you know anything about flying, you don’t fly after having a tooth out, for fear of haemorrhaging. Now she’s sitting in her seat… there was nobody with her, she was on her own… because of the severity of the matter, we had no choice, we couldn’t wait to get back to Dublin. That plane was diverted into Liverpool. And my memory… was of that girl – the ambulance men came on, they very discretely looked after everything, and nobody knew anything, they took her off – and she SCREAMED, all the way down on that stretcher, for us not to tell her parents back in Ireland.
That was an experience from the 1980’s, told by Derry-Ann Morgan, a former employee of Ireland’s national airline, to the crowd of activists, protestors and passers-by attending a Pro-Choice Rally on a very cold Saturday in May 2013, in Ireland’s capital city. That a girl of 15 years old would be subjected to such trauma, on finding herself pregnant in circumstances that simply did not allow for her to birth and raise a child, is unthinkable. But sure, that was 30 years ago. So much has changed in Ireland since then!
Highlights from the 80’s here on the island include an amendment to the Irish constitution, just to be sure to be sure than none of our poor wee Irish babbies might get killed unnecessarily. Driven by fear of abortion in other countries, the 8thAmendment in 1983 made it illegal for a woman to travel for an abortion, and illegal to even provide information, or speak to a pregnant woman in Ireland about how or where she could travel for abortion to another country. That same year, it was reported that an Irish mother of two named Sheila Hodgers was refused treatment for her progressive cancer, even down to not being allowed proper pain medication, due to the risk it posed to the foetus she was carrying at the time. Her husband repeatedly requested an abortion, but was refused. The hospital had to abide by a code of ethics drawn up with the Catholic Church, which would not even allow for a Caesarean section, as there was a chance of damage to the foetus. Following a premature labour, the baby died a few hours after birth, and Ms. Hodgers lasted only two days longer.
It’s a good thing the Government of Ireland has managed to wriggle out from under the thumb of the Church in 2017, so a travesty like that couldn’t possibly happen again, isn’t it?
Oh no, wait, they haven’t yet.
When the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist residing in Ireland, hit the news, the nation, and the world, was shocked. Ms. Halappanavar died in October 2012, after she had sought help at the University Hospital in Galway as she was suffering a foetal miscarriage at 17 weeks. On being told the foetus was not viable, Savita requested an abortion, but was then informed the hospital could not perform an abortion under Irish Law as the foetus’s heart was still beating. A few days after, Ms. Halappanavar was diagnosed with septicaemia, leading to multiple organ failure, and death of both mother and foetus.
This happened despite the 1992 ‘X Case’ in which the Supreme Court decided that a pregnant woman could have an abortion to save her life, including from suicide – which was based on the case of X, a 14 year old girl who had been made pregnant by rape, and wanted the right of an abortion. This led to the 13th, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, stating that the prohibition on abortion would not limit the freedom of pregnant women to travel out of the state, and that the prohibition of abortion would not limit the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries. Neither of which was of any use to Savita, whose husband reported that a nurse in the hospital told them their repeated requests for abortion had to be denied, because “Ireland is a Catholic country”.
How horrific. How utterly, incomprehensibly tragic all of that is. Janet, who has been a pro-choice activist in Ireland for 24 years, recounts what she views as the best experience for a woman in Ireland today:
At 5 to 7 weeks… they illegally obtain the medical abortion pills online… they order them, risking charges for importing a Class A drug without a license, and with their partner or friend take them over the course of a weekend and have an abortion at home with everything they might need, or booked into a hotel room.
And what, in her experience, is the worst experience for an Irish woman who faces the choice today?
It is not to do with if they have travelled, or how far along they were, or what type of abortion they have had. It is simply the isolation which comes with not having anyone to talk to about the experience… We know that 150,000 women who gave Irish addresses have travelled to the UK, it may be more… That is so many women passing each other each day and not knowing they have that shared experience, and being unable to support each other.
The Pro-Choice Rally in May 2013 was timed to coincide with a 3 day Government committee hearings on proposed new legislation, following publication of the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013’. Dr. Sinead Kennedy of the ‘Action on X’ group, organisers of the rally, spoke of her feeling with regard to the Bill, and the debate that surrounds it:
We had the spectacle beginning yesterday of politicians debating the merits of allowing women lifesaving abortions. Debating how many years in prison – 5, 10, 15, 20 – vulnerable women in difficult situations will be subjected to, if they try and access abortions here in this country. Listening to politicians who seem to think that they’re bishops back in the 1950’s, who think that women are no more than vessels or incubators.
We need to tell this government that we will not accept legislation that excludes suicide. Women will not be subjected to panels of 3, 4, 7 doctors (to decide if they may have a termination). This is outrageous, it is barbaric. And women must not and will not be criminalised in their own country, for accessing abortion. (This Bill doesn’t provide) access to abortion for women who are victims of rape or incest, it doesn’t provide access for women who have fatal foetal abnormality, it does nothing to address the issue of when a woman’s health is in jeopardy because of her pregnancy – and more than that it doesn’t do ANYTHING to address the 5,000 women who travel abroad every single year to Europe, who are criminalised in their own country, and treated like exiles. And we will not tolerate this anymore.
It is surreal to think that under the proposed legislation, a 14 year old rape victim such as the girl in the X case, who is proven to have taken abortion pills in Ireland, would be subject to a 14 year prison sentence. Her attacker, if convicted, would be likely to face a 7 year jail term, the current average. As reprehensible as the situation is though, Dr. Kennedy is satisfied that things are moving in the right direction. She said that this legislation is the bare minimum we need, and while it is highly restrictive, and insulting that we have to stand out and demand this, it is nevertheless an important defeat for anti-abortionists. This, finally, is a step in the right direction.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 now defines the circumstances and processes within which abortion in Ireland can be legally performed. It allows for abortion where pregnancy endangers a woman’s life, including through a risk of suicide. It was signed into law on 30 July by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, and commenced on 1 January 2014. To determine whether the pregnant person is truly at risk, her case is put before a panel of up to 4 doctors and specialists, who must concur on the ruling.
There are no restrictions or checks in place for the religious beliefs of any of those doctors.
In a conversation with Katherine O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at University College, Dublin, she speculated:
Besides women who are ‘out’ about needing terminations for medical reasons, there is no big visible presence of women who have chosen to terminate pregnancies for other reasons, it is left to a few activists and organisations (such as Choice Ireland and Doctors for Choice)… so many thousands of Irish women annually terminate pregnancies, but there is no visible mass movement. We seem to have as many Irish women who are saying they were ‘hurt by abortion’ or that abortion is harmful, as those who are affirming it as a positive choice in their lives. If even a small fraction of Irish women told their abortion stories, I think it might be the way to unlock the long impasse where the argument about abortion goes into arcane abstractions rather than lived lives.
In 2013, it was estimated that 12 women leave Ireland every day to secure an abortion, while countless others are taking pills purchased online. Abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure an Irish woman is likely to have. It is variously estimated that between one in 10 and one in 15 Irish women of reproductive age have had an abortion. An Irish woman is more likely to have had an abortion than appendectomy or tonsillectomy.
It is time for Ireland to accept that the Abortion War will not be won by anything but safety and support for Ireland’s women, and the right – regardless of the situation – of an Irish woman to make the best possible choice she can for her own life.
You can provide support and keep up to date at the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland Website.
[A version of this article was first published in Ms. Magazine, in the Summer issue of 2013, researched and written by Lora O’Brien.]