Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill is not a ‘slippery slope’ to abortion on demand
Analysis: the graphic reality of the State’s current abortion law is that its hypocrisy is putting women’s health at risk
A Marie Stopes clinic in the United Kingdom. Almost 4,000 women travelled to England for abortions in 2012. Photograph: Ross Parry
Over the last week, as the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill has been debated in the Seanad, we have been subjected to particularly graphic and insensitive descriptions of abortion procedures by some of those opposing the Bill. While the majority of contributors to the debate have been thoughtful and measured, it is unfortunate that a small number have resorted to these tactics.
However, this week we have also been tragically reminded about the real experiences of women in Ireland seeking abortion. Yesterday’s report that a woman died last year following the termination of her pregnancy in a London clinic has clearly highlighted the immense difficulties faced by women who have to travel to England for abortion.
While the precise circumstances of the sad death are unknown and the case is under investigation in Britain, the report provides a poignant insight into the real consequences of our highly restrictive law on abortion. It appears that the woman had sought an abortion because the pregnancy posed a serious threat to her health – but it could not be terminated legally on this ground in Ireland.
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The continued existence of the 1983 eighth amendment to the Constitution – which equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with that of her foetus – means we have the most restrictive abortion law in Europe. The Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in the X case provides that abortion is legal only where necessary to save a woman’s life – but not where her pregnancy threatens her health.
Twenty-one years after the X case, the introduction of the protection of life legislation is very welcome. It is indeed urgently required in accordance with the 2010 European Court of Human Rights decision in the ABC case that Ireland must provide an effective and accessible procedure to establish a woman’s right to a lawful abortion where her life is at risk. The Bill sets out procedures for obtaining abortion in cases of risk to a woman’s life and will provide legal clarity for women and doctors in applying the X case test.
Last November, Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death illustrated the urgent need to give such clarity – but it also showed the difficulty in determining when a pregnancy that is damaging to a woman’s health becomes life-threatening and therefore capable of being terminated lawfully. Unfortunately, this Bill cannot provide for abortion on grounds of risk to the health of the pregnant woman.
To bring forward such legislation, or to legislate for cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormality, the eighth amendment would need to be repealed. Recent opinion polls show clear public support exists for this change in the law – and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, indicated at the weekend that if Labour is elected into government again a referendum would be held to allow abortion in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormality.
Those opposing such legal change should consider the hypocrisy about Irish abortion law that has been exposed by yesterday’s report.
The real law which governs abortion for most Irish women is not the eighth amendment, it is the British Abortion Act 1967. Almost 4,000 women, among them the tragic woman at the centre of yesterday’s report, travelled to Britain for abortions in 2012. Since 1983, more than 150,000 women have made that journey: our sisters, friends, mothers and daughters. The vast majority of those women have obtained terminations in Britain on the legal ground that continuing the pregnancy would cause risk of injury to their physical or mental health.
This information is provided in the detailed annual report produced by the UK department of health. We rarely hear about the experiences of women themselves – although the 1998 Women and Crisis Pregnancy study highlighted the careful decision-making process engaged in by women who sought abortions; and the complete absence of formal supports in Ireland for those women. Some women interviewed had avoided going to doctors or counsellors for support because they were frightened that they would get into trouble with the authorities; others who sought information from individual doctors were dismissed out of hand.
It is 15 years since that publication, but yesterday’s news should remind us of some important issues raised in the report. Clearly, women in crisis pregnancy still receive no formal support from the Irish health authorities where they seek to terminate pregnancies – even where their pregnancy may pose a risk to their health.
There has been vehement opposition to the protection of life Bill within the Oireachtas and elsewhere – this Government has been accused of liberalising abortion law, of introducing a “slippery slope” to “abortion on demand”. This is far from the truth.
In fact, the legislation is highly restrictive and merely restates existing law by setting out implementation procedures for the X case, within the terms of the Constitution. It will not cover those women, like the tragic woman whose death we learned about yesterday, who face serious risk to their health if they continue with their pregnancy. It will not help women who know that the baby they carry will not be born alive. It is reprehensible that we cannot legislate now for these women. But that is not the fault of this Bill. It is due to the restrictive wording of the 1983 amendment, which has effectively tied the legislature’s hands for 30 years.
I believe that, having legislated for the X case as we must, further change in our law is necessary to meet the real reproductive health needs of Irish women through a constitutional referendum to repeal the 1983 amendment. Only then will we meet our responsibilities to the thousands of women in crisis pregnancy who avail of the 1967 Abortion Act each year. Until then, Irish legal hypocrisy is putting women’s health at risk. That is the graphic reality of Irish abortion law.
Ivana Bacik is a Labour Senator for Dublin University