Abortion where we live abroad: 'People are shocked at Irish law'
Irish from Canada to India on how legislation compares to Ireland, and what they think
Syllona Kanu: ‘Abortion in British Columbia is free, safe and legal.’
On May 25th, Ireland will hold a referendum on whether to repeal or retain the Eighth Amendment, the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland. If the referendum is passed, the Government will then introduce a law to permit abortions up to 12 weeks on request, as well as in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities.
Irish Times Abroad asked readers living overseas how the proposed legal changes - and the current abortion regime in Ireland - compare to where they live. Below is a selection of the responses we received.
John Hyland, Brussels, Belgium
In Belgium, pregnant women can access abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, with a mandatory six-day waiting period between the request for an abortion and the actual procedure. After 12 weeks, abortion is allowed if the life or health of the pregnant person is in danger, or if the foetus is found to have a “serious”, incurable medical condition.
Brussels has a very mixed population, with about 60 per cent of residents born outside the country, so I meet a lot of people from all over Europe. The rules on abortion are more or less the same everywhere, and people are shocked at how restrictive the laws are in Ireland. Many people naively believe that there’s a legal baseline across the EU. Comparing the different reasons people are allowed to terminate pregnancies in EU countries, we can see that the islands of Ireland and Malta are extreme outliers.
Abortion has been legal in Sweden since 1975 and extends to all pregnant people in the country, regardless of citizenship or right of residency. This law ensures the right to abortion, without reason, up to and including week 18 of pregnancy. Abortion is readily accessible, with adequate aftercare and costs the same as a regular GP visit (roughly €10 to €15), with 90 per cent of abortions in Sweden taking place before week 12, according to the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU).
After 18 weeks, up to and including 21 weeks and six days, there must be specific reasons given for abortion, with the final decision resting with the Legal Counsel at the board of Social Affairs (Rättsliga rådet vid Socialstyrelsen). There are exceptions to this law in the event that the pregnancy poses a threat to a person’s life or health. The pregnant person’s health is prioritised above the foetus at all stages of pregnancy and abortion is allowed in such cases where doctors deem there to be such a threat. Not having the right to vote overseas is not something I feel too strongly about because thankfully I do not have to live under the Eighth amendment. My sympathies are with those under the age of 18, those living in direct provision, long term residents in Ireland, and everyone else who is directly affected by these restrictive laws but unable to have a say in the upcoming referendum.
I am pro-choice and strongly in favour of free, safe and legal abortion. I would like to see a similar policy that is in place in Sweden, implemented in Ireland, without exceptions. Abortion is the norm across all of Europe, and in Ireland too, but currently it is illegal, inaccessible and even life-threatening.
Dermot Kearney, Gateshead, UK
I am an Irish doctor working in the UK. I see at first hand the devastation caused by abortion. The intention, we are led to believe, of the original Abortion Act of 1967 was that abortion would remain illegal but could be legally performed under strict restrictions as laid down in the Act. The UK, as we know, now has abortion on demand. Once introduced there is no restraining it. I fear the same fate will befall the Republic of Ireland. The current law in Ireland, with the Eighth Amendment still intact, provides equal rights to both mother and unborn child and that is how it should remain.
Will you be flying home to vote? How do you feel about not having a say in this referendum?
Medical doctors know that there will be very rare circumstances where it may be necessary to deliver the foetus or unborn child at a premature stage before viability has been reached to save the life of the mother. The current law allows for this circumstance and all medical doctors are very clear about this. In those rare situations all efforts are made to safe both mother and child wherever possible. In the UK, the easy option of aborting the foetus is routinely taken and largely unquestioned. This is very poor medical practice and is a shame on the UK health system.
Shauna Stanley, Melbourne, Australia
How do Ireland’s abortion laws compare to other parts of the world? It would be difficult to find somewhere where they are worse. In Australia, abortion laws are decided on a state level, with access to abortion being available everywhere to some extent. Abortion is available upon request in all states but three. In South Australia abortion is legal but must be performed in a hospital, but medical abortion is illegal, which is concerning for those who live in remote areas of the vast state of South Australia and so cannot travel for an abortion.
In Queensland abortion is available if the woman’s life or health is at risk, and in New South Wales, abortion is available for any economic, social or medical reason. Outside these parameters, abortion is technically a criminal offence in both NSW and Queensland. Campaigns are underway in both states to decriminalise abortion, following the success of a campaign in the Northern Territory which made abortion available in line with states like Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria.
I live in Melbourne, Victoria, where abortion is available on request up to 24 weeks, and beyond 24 weeks if two doctors agree. With legality comes a lessening of stigma, and so it’s refreshing to live somewhere where people talk openly about reproductive choices and their experience of abortion without fear of judgment. Providing access to abortion in Ireland would send a message to people who have abortions that they should not feel ashamed for making a choice about their own lives. It is a strange relief to know that, living in Melbourne, I don’t have to ever worry about making a hard decision more traumatic by being forced to travel. But access to abortion shouldn’t be a privilege of my choosing to live in Melbourne, when my friends in Ireland, both north and south, would have to endure the mental and physical of trauma of travelling elsewhere for the same procedure.
Emma O’Brien, India
I’ve been living in the Darjeeling Himalaya for more than ten years, and my work brings me into contact with some of the most marginalised communities in the region. It’s a mountainous area, with very poor infrastructure - roads are poor, medical facilities are under-resourced and under staffed, much of the land is under forest and tea, so the people have very little access to natural resources. Tea plantation workers, living on plantations, earning less than €2 per day, with labour laws that have barely changed since colonial times, have better access to some aspects of reproductive healthcare than women in Ireland.
In India, medical termination of pregnancy is available up to 20 weeks gestation, on broad grounds of risk to physical and mental health, risk to life of the mother, and serious physical or mental abnormalities. While my own research on choices (or absence of choice) for women in childbirth, and the challenges in delivering women-centred birth care, at least in termination of pregnancy, women are trusted and the matter is left between a woman and her doctor.
Marc de Faoite, Malaysia
Abortion is illegal here in Malaysia. The law allows for exceptions to be made if there is a risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or injury to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman. However these exceptions don’t cover abortion if there are foetal abnormalities, or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, which begs the question as to what might be sufficient to be deemed injurious to the mental health of the woman? In 2015 a Nepali woman living in Malaysia was the first woman to be convicted and jailed for abortion, though ultimately the case was overturned. In practice, many medical clinics perform illegal abortions.
Fiona Gwozdz, Gladstone, US
I live in one of the most progressive states in the US, and even so, sometimes we can sense the undercurrent of the war against women (even in Portland, Oregon people picket the Planned Parenthood clinics and other places that provide abortion services among other reproductive health care services). Unfortunately, on a national scale, limiting access to reproductive freedoms seems to be on the federal government’s agenda, and they’re doing scary things like saying clinic hallways have to be a certain size, or setting other arbitrary parameters to “protect” women---this means some clinics are shut down, despite giving excellent care, and people seeking reproductive health care in general, not just abortion services, have to go miles and miles before the next available care provider (meaning some might miss their window of care, others might not be able to afford to travel, others might not get the birth control they need and become pregnant so the cycle continues) .
That said, we don’t have to leave the country to receive services. And luckily enough, in Oregon, I don’t have to even leave my neighbourhood. We are very lucky here in that the current Governor of Oregon, a woman, has protected some of the pieces of the Obama Legacy Healthcare legislation that ensure that women’s birth control and access to other contraceptives and holistic healthcare services are readily available and a standard covered by insurance in many cases, no matter what happens at the fed level. Abortion is one of those services. It is treated as a basic, routine medical procedure that is part of a normal reproductive life, and Oregon is considered one of the nation’s leaders on access to abortion care because of these protections that ensure insurance covers the cost of the services.
Syllona Kanu, Vancouver, Canada
I’ve been living in Vancouver for just under two years. I work with a fantastic women’s organisation which works tirelessly for justice and equality for women through emergency intervention and advocacy within the criminal justice system. There is still a lot of work to do to achieve equality for women here, but British Columbia has got it right in one key area: abortion. There is no legal restriction around abortion in Canada, but there are professional guidelines, meaning physicians often will not perform an abortion past 24 weeks unless there is a risk to the mother’s life.
Robin Henry, Germany
Contrary to what many may believe, Germany is not very liberal in its abortion law. The Federal Constitution (Grudgesetz) actually prohibits abortion. Nevertheless, it is available on certain grounds, life and health of the mother, fatal foetal abnormality etc. Attendance at a counselling session, conducted by doctors, is compulsory shortly before an abortion can be carried out. A number of German women seeking an abortion go to the Netherlands where the law is more liberal. It is possible that the law may be reformed in Germany, as the old DDR law was more liberal, but it is not the “hot” issue it is in Ireland. The Protestant (Lutheran) church tends to take a more liberal view on abortion than the Catholic Church.
Gretta Cachat, New York
In New York we have abortion up to 24 weeks. I believe that it is a private choice a woman makes. I do not believe it belongs in government, nor do I believe men should participate in the decision. There is not a woman anywhere who decided to have an abortion for the experience.
LauraJane Quirk, Vancouver, Canada
Vancouver has it’s similarities to home but the major difference is the attitude towards abortion. In Vancouver, abortion is free, safe, and legal, with the process of a termination being perceived as a personal medical decision for a person and not something that should be denied, legislated, or debated. Knowing that I have the freedom to have control over my body here in Canada is a right that I should have back home. Hopefully, in the near future, it’s one I will have.