Ireland’s Abortion Debate Heats Up

A heated abortion debate, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is symptomatic of the island's rapid transformation in recent decades

  • Share
  • Read Later
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

Pro-life campaigners protest outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast on Oct. 18, 2012

The first clinic offering abortions on the island of Ireland opened its doors in the Northern Irish city of Belfast on Oct. 18, but the 400 pro-life protesters gathered outside were determined that no abortion procedures would happen there that day. Buses full of antiabortion demonstrators stood on the sidewalks carrying banners and placards outside the clinic, which is operated by Marie Stopes International, a U.K.-based organization that works worldwide providing reproductive- and sexual-health care services. “We knew we couldn’t sit back and live in a country where unborn babies were being violently destroyed every day,” says Bernadette Smyth, founder of Precious Life, a Northern Irish pro-life group, speaking after her organization’s participation in the protests. “The question of abortions is not a health issue, it’s a criminal one. Marie Stopes will be carrying out abortions illegally.”

Smyth’s claim is denied by the clinic. “Marie Stopes is operating completely in line with the current legal framework in Northern Ireland,” says a spokeswoman who requested that her name be withheld amid concerns for staff safety. “There’s a real need for a good sexual-health clinic in Northern Ireland. The clinic was able to open as planned, and we were pleased to receive thousands of messages of positive support from women and men telling us to stand tall against the protesters.” The spokeswoman declined to say whether any women have undergone abortions at the clinic.

(MORE: Irish Austerity: Can the Government Last the Course?)

An increasingly heated abortion debate, both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, is symptomatic of the island’s extraordinarily rapid transformation in recent decades. In the north, years of political strife and instability had slowed progress in areas of health and women’s rights; now peace, of a kind, is enabling social progress — with all the benefits and new tensions that brings. In the south, the Catholic Church held sway over the majority of political decisions through the 20th century; but a series of scandals involving the sexual abuse of children by priests has weakened an institution that was already facing challenges to its authority in a less reverential age. Prosperity during the economic-boom years also encouraged large numbers of women to pursue professional careers, which has inevitably led to smaller family sizes.

Nevertheless “the power and influence of the Catholic Church where it chooses to intervene in social-policy debates should not be underestimated in [the Republic of Ireland], where 84% still identify as Catholic,” says Ivana Bacik, a Senator for the Irish Labour Party, the junior member of the country’s governing coalition. Many leading members of the largest party in the Republic of Ireland’s government, Fine Gael, are devout Catholics, including Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny. Kenny said in an interview with TIME in September that he was personally against abortion. “I think that this issue is not of priority for government now,” he said. But the opening of the Belfast clinic isn’t the only reason he may have to revise that view.

(MORE: The Irish Answer)

The Republic of Ireland is one of a minority of four European states (the others are Malta, San Marino and Monaco) that still enforce highly restrictive criminal abortion laws. But, with approximately 4,000 women from the republic and 1,000 from the north traveling to Britain each year for abortions, the Irish electorate is increasingly calling for clarification of abortion legislation. If there is confusion over the legal status of abortion in Ireland, that’s hardly surprising. Northern Ireland never enacted the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalized abortion in the rest of the U.K. Northern Irish law states that women can have an abortion only if there is a long-term or permanent adverse risk to her physical or mental health. Even tougher strictures limit the availability of abortions in the Republic of Ireland, where a 1983 amendment to its constitution did seem to permit terminations but only if the mother’s life was in danger. This right has rarely been tested. There is no official legislation defining what the “risk of life to the mother” actually entails, and earlier laws prohibiting all abortions have never been repealed. Medical practitioners fear criminal and professional sanctions.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the case of a Lithuanian national living in the Republic of Ireland who argued that by denying her an abortion, the government had compromised her fundamental rights by putting her life at risk. She was recovering from a rare form of cancer when she became pregnant. In January 2012, the government set up a panel of experts to examine the European court’s ruling; their report is expected before the end of this year.

While the panel deliberated through the summer, pro-choice groups took to the streets calling for abortion laws to be changed. Meanwhile, pro-life groups plastered Dublin’s streets, buses and trams with shock-tactic posters. The Catholic Church has also made it clear that it will campaign against any liberalization of abortion in Ireland, both north and south of the border. It has set up a website and distributed leaflets to all 1,360 parishes urging Dublin to set aside a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that abortion should be allowed when the life of the mother is at risk. This isn’t the first time the subject of abortion has been so hotly debated.

(PHOTOS: Twisted Nostalgia: Life After the Troubles)

In 1992, the Republic of Ireland hit the headlines in many countries with the story of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and became pregnant. The teenager, who became suicidal, was prevented from traveling to the U.K. for an abortion, but on appeal, the Attorney General in Dublin granted leave for the family to travel. Following the case, Dublin held a referendum on the right to abortion information and the right to travel abroad for an abortion; both measures received a majority yes vote from the electorate. The Supreme Court also ruled, in the wake of the case appeal of the suicidal 14-year-old, that abortions would be allowed when there was a “real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother.” However, a Supreme Court ruling does not demand political action on behalf of the legislators, which means that successive governments have been able to ignore the law required to put this into effect.

Now the time for kicking the issue into the long grass may have passed. A poll carried out last year in the republic showed 54% of the country’s electorate backing the full legalization of abortion, up from 37% four years earlier. And, for the first time, women in the south contemplating unwanted pregnancies need only look north to see another option. The island has changed fast. Legislators and institutions on both sides of the border have some catching up to do.

35 comments
GiGiC
GiGiC

I wish people would stop bringing their religion into their pro-life standing. It alienates those who, like myself, believe in neither organised religion or abortion. I find it insulting to be constantly thrown in with homophobic and at times chauvinistic zealots. 

Having said that, I hate the way scientific terms are used to depersonalize what has every potential to become a human being. A four month old 'fetus' is not a baby? Try telling that to a woman who has just miscarried a wanted 'fetus'. It may not feel pain, it may not have thought, but it could one day. Doesn't something with the potential to grow into a human being, or even a heartbeat, have intrinsic value that deserves protecting?

Women are capable of making their own decisions. Having said that, I'm a young mother-to-be, and in the week I found out I was so scared and vulnerable. I could easily have been persuaded - I could have had an abortion had it been easily accessible to me, and I would have regretted it. Having received a surprising amount of love and support from my friends and family, I am so glad I didn't do it.

The only thing that needs to change in this country is our attitudes to young pregnant women; it is not the end of the world, it is nothing to be ashamed of (thanks catholicism for that lovely guilt complex). Terminating a pregnancy when the woman's life is at risk is already legal in Ireland. If Savita is found to have died as a result of being refused a termination it will be a malpractice case. Perhaps there would be less suicidal pregnant women if we weren't thought from childhood that only in certain times and certain situations are pregnancies acceptable.

StanChaz1
StanChaz1

It's about time that people took control of their own destiny..way past time! There are so many priests, preachers, and assorted shamans out there -"men of the cloth"- who have the unmitigated gall, the sheer arrogance, of claiming to speak for God, and with God. And we...must listen. Or so they say. It's gotten so bad that NOW they think THEY ARE GOD- with THE RIGHT TO TAKE WOMEN’S LIVES!

They claim a direct pipeline to the Almighty! God did this, God told me. God loves that, God hates this. God wants this. Another coin in the basket please. Hey, like .... We've had ENOUGH already!I say to them : Go back to whatever burrow you came from, you charlatans, and leave us -and our country- alone.For we're a free and proud people, and will remain so - without your shameful meddling, in both our private lives and our public institutions.

BigRedEO
BigRedEO

People who say they are "pro-life" are NOT "pro-life" - they're "pro-zygote" and "pro-embryo."  They certainly have nothing to do with an unwanted child from a woman forced to carry to term. They may force a woman who was impregnated via rape to have her baby, but don't think for a moment they'll offer any kind of help - emotionally, physically or monetarily - once that child is born.  And the same people who claim to be "pro-life" are also much more likely to be both "pro-war" and "pro-death penalty."  So which is it? "Pro-life" or "pro-death"?

PmpcAustralia
PmpcAustralia

www.abortion---my-heart-weeps-tears-of-blood.net

MariaConroyByrne
MariaConroyByrne

Very poorly researched article. The European Court of Human Rights actually found that there is no right to an abortion. Ireland is under no obligation to legislate for abortion, just to clarify the situation. Labour, the minority party in government are trying to foist abortion onto the Irish people, but the main party in government headed by Enda Kenny gave a commitment before the last General Election not to legislate for abortion. Many voted for them based on this assurance. There have been large marches and well attended demonstrations by those who don't believe abortion is the kind option for women. Without abortion, Ireland has a brilliant record in obstetric care and has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates- much better that the UK figures. Ireland is one of the safest places in the world to have a baby. No woman is refused life saving treatment even if this results in the sad loss of her baby. I think it's important that journalists maintain high standards and am disappointed at such a shoddy reporting of the facts in what is viewed as a publication with high standards of professionalism. 

strathmeyer
strathmeyer

Ireland: the country where women have to leave for health care

falcon269
falcon269

The Pro Life folks have left graffiti all along the Camino de Santiago. How this vandalism supports the movement in Ireland was lost on me. All it did was desecrate the spiritual nature of the pilgrimage. Well done, haters. You spoil everything you touch.

EyeEdinburgh
EyeEdinburgh

There has never seemed any good reason why Ireland should get to outsource all abortions to England and pretend it has a zero abortion rate. Ireland has about the same abortion rate as most other European countries: the only distinction is, that almost all legal abortions for Irish citizens (and UK citizens in Northern Ireland) have to be provided by healthcare services overseas.  (Exceptions such as abortions for molar pregnancy and abortions for ectopic pregnancy are dealt with in classic ostrich fashion: Irish hospitals don't call them abortions.)

This is presented as a moral choice for Ireland, but it's just outsourcing: the idea that it's more moral to have needed abortions carried out at the personal expense of the patient and outside Ireland is some hairy logic.

Mary
Mary

What a biased analysis of Ireland?  Selective quoting of opinion polls and a quote from most well known pro-choice politician in Ireland.  No interview with a pro-life politician.  The journalist has not done her homework if she thinks that 400 protestors in Belfast represent the Irish pro-life movement.  This is why I no longer subcribe to Time magazine. 

eeenok
eeenok

abortion might not be a hip and trendy thing, but banning it is draconian and medieval - a throwback to the time when it was completely ordinary for the church to insist on everyone sharing its principles or suffer the consequences. the argument - if you can even call it that - of whether abortion is wrong only ever gets "won" when the church steps in to tell someone that they are supposed to agree with you. on the field of open philosophical debate, the claims that abortion is a proved evil that must be banned are looked upon as strident idiocy. but hey! why bother winning an argument (or otherwise catching up) when good old fashioned bullying still works so well in some of the backward parts of the world?

txnicole
txnicole

They have catching up to do? As if abortion is a trendy popular thing which people should hurry up and get hip to. Not all change is good change, and not all modern or trendy beliefs are right. I hope they stand firm there against the growing tide of women desensitized into believing that it just might ever be ok to murder your own child.

EyeEdinburgh
EyeEdinburgh

@MariaConroyByrne Hi Maria, in fact women have to leave Ireland to have life-saving abortions on a regular basis, because hospitals and doctors in Ireland don't have the experience or the training to help women in Ireland. It's tragic and awful for any woman to have to have a late abortion when her pregnancy goes wrong, but worse for Irish women because they're required by the prolife legislation to travel out of Ireland to have an abortion far from any support networks - and at their own expense. This is absolutely the worst facet of Ireland's refusal to care for women who need abortions.

Sarah
Sarah

@MariaConroyByrne Actually a recent ESRI report showed that out of the 22 countries in Europe, Ireland is the 15th safest place to give birth. That line that Ireland is the safest for mothers is ridiculous. Also, the ECHR actually did find that Ireland had violated the human rights of the woman in the C case of A, B & C vs Ireland. They unanimously agreed that this woman had a right to an abortion and should have been provided with one. You are so not living in the real world. Try to enlighten yourself to the issues in your country.

pbrady96
pbrady96

@strathmeyer  When did aborting a living human being become healthcare, we all started out the same way a fertilized egg, thank your parents for choosing to let you live, every child should have the right to live, what kind of a world have we become that we want to kill our unborn girls & boys in the name of choice, pregnancy is not a disease but a gift to bring new life into the world. If you are so in favor of legalized abortion in Ireland, why don't you have the Irish media show the people of Ireland what an abortion looks like, civilized people don't do that to their off spring. my wife and i have 10 wonderful kids the oldest 21 and the youngest 3 months, my advice when ever there is an unwanted pregnancy choose life you will never regret it, there are a whole lot women out there who regret there abortions, LET THE BABY'S LIVE.GOD BLESS IRELAND

Piacevole
Piacevole

If you disapprove of abortion, don't have one.  As for other women, it's their lives, and their choice.  That's the way this issue is going to wind up, however much prople who want to control the lives and behavior of others may kick and scream.  It's simply none of your business.

Sarah
Sarah

@Mary Enough with the 'pro-life' term. These people do not care about the lives of the women, as they force rape victims and cancer patients to give birth to children that would be unwanted, uncared for and would destroy the mother, either physically or mentally. You're a disgrace as a women for backing laws that deny these women the right to choose whether they should have a child or not. I think the reporter has given a very clear idea of the issue in Ireland.

lounsey
lounsey

@txnicole  there are these inalienable things called 'human rights'.... maybe you guys have heard of them? We need them for the women of Ireland too. That's the catching up they have to do. Look up the case of Michelle Harte, a pregnant Irish woman with cancer, who's treatments were stopped *and* abortion refused. The time it took her to travel to the UK for an abortion so she could continue her treatment accelerated her cancer and killed her. That is not ok. Irish women's lives need to be protected, and they aren't right now.

sensi
sensi

@txnicole We all know that a bunch of cells are a "child" according to the ideologues and lunatics who failed their biology class...

BigRedEO
BigRedEO

@pbrady96 You really need to learn the difference between a zygote, an embryo, a fetus and a human being.  Stop quoting from your indoctrination of religion and try to educate yourself in the real world.

crumpethead
crumpethead

@strathmeyer "When did aborting a living human being become healthcare"This is what NOT having an abortion looks like and why it IS healthcare.  http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/frontpage/2012/1114/1224326575203.html#.UKLneh7NEJo.email

When YOU are the one with the unplanned pregnancy and your circumstances are inappropriate to continuing the pregnancy and/or raising a child, it is a critical healthcare issue. Whether it's to escape an abusive relationship, or the woman is living in poverty, or has existing children that she is barely able to support, the consequences of denying these woman access to abortion IS a healthcare issue. Does any right-to-lifer actually care about these women? 

lounsey
lounsey

@strathmeyer Also, the vast majority of women say retrospectively that abortion was the right choice for them, and that while they might regret the circumstances that lead to making that choice, that they don't regret it. Regardless, somebody regretting a choice they make doesn't mean that other people should not be able to make that choice for themselves. Women aren't children, they are capable of deciding their lives for themselves.

lounsey
lounsey

@strathmeyer > When did aborting a living human being become healthcareBecause being pregnant effects ones health, and because in many cases continuing pregnancy would threaten the health or life of the mother.> why don't you have the Irish media show the people of Ireland what an abortion looks likeConsidering the fact that over 90% of abortions happen before 13 weeks gestation, what we'd be showing to the people of Ireland would be a heavy period.

mmcdonough
mmcdonough

@Piacevole  Have you forgotten about the TEN COMMANDMENTS? Specifically, THOU SHALL NOT KILL?

                       Abortion takes the life of  the most innocent on this earth-- the boy or girl in the womb!! Just and civilized nations protect the innocent! Adoption gives a second chance to that baby!

forgarden
forgarden

@lounsey @txnicole 

You leftys always like to cite one unfortunate case as the exception that shouid overturn a rule that serves the most good for most of the people most of the time. In this case, you trot out a sole cancer case as a moral whip to exhort for a ghastly holocaust to benefit the sexually irresponsible among us who deny the innocent of their very lives so they can continue to shag at will. Here is my exception to the rule: if not for the Catholic priest who chose "the life of the child over the life of the mother" generations ago when my great-grandmother died in childbirth with my grandfather, neither I nor my offspring would be here. It is a decision we are grateful for -- and not a one of us has ever taken welfare from our fellow citizens; but have lived productive lives. Decisions favoring life have, in the past, provided children for childless couples that does not involve overseas adoptions and the ethnic confusion that results in many cases. You leftys spoil everything you touch with your selfish behavior.

eeenok
eeenok

@PetrinaAntoinette @dingbat apparently you like talking about the good book more than you like reading it. there's nothing in the bible prohibiting abortion. this is why the bible-based arguments are so vague and hand-waving: god foresaw the existence of jeremiah (yeah, being omniscient will do that) and a fetus is a possession you have to be compensated for if it gets violently destroyed (oddly, god forgets to mention "oh yeah, that rule about murder? it applies to a fetus as well, just so there's no confusion about two totally different rules for both situations"); and that's it. what we really have here are that group that the fundies usually complain about no end ... "moral relativists": people who choose the morality of their cultural group, rather than obediently following the bible. the last ditch effort is always the argument-free insistence that a fetus (or embryo) is a person, a non-sequitur derived from life or human dna or person-potential. your opposition doesn't think this conclusion follows - we are at an impasse where you are merely asserting your preferred conclusion rather than actually proving it. either way, the answer doesn't lie in the bible: it says not to kill people (otherwise thou shalt not kill forces us to be vegetarians. or eat carrion) but it doesn't tell us when the soul enters the fetus. IMO god's answer lies in the total absence of the inspirational story of the crippled child lovingly raised by the village despite being unmarriageable and unable to work ... the biblical world before modern judaism seems to be like most other traditional societies, where infanticide is a sad decision parents make in extreme cases. maybe we could believe god was a little less carefree about infants if He hadn't punished david's sexual misdeeds by killing his infant son, or that He was a bit more inclusive of cripples if He had allowed them to worship in the temple. "read the bible" is merely a hopeful catch cry that assumes your position is correct and therefore must be reflected, somewhere, within the bible. american protestants only became "pro-life" in 1974, when it became a political issue; and they, along with catholics, have taken their position not from the bible, but from their divinely-annointed leaders

crumpethead
crumpethead

@PetrinaAntoinette @dingbat  You have every right to blindly believe everything that you read in the bible and to interpret it's verses in a way that suits you, however you do not have the right to demand that others obey your X-tian beliefs. 

crumpethead
crumpethead

@cephalopod @lounsey  Regardless of whether you rather ignorantly call an embryo a "person" or not, the fact is that we are talking about the rights of a woman versus the rights of a non-sentient embryo. The embryo may be a living thing  but by law, it is NOT a person, and it has NO right to override the woman. If you believe that an embryo deserves greater legal status that a woman, then this clearly illustrates what little respect you & the Catholic church has for the rights of women to determine their own outcomes.

cephalopod
cephalopod

@lounsey 

so because there is no "consensus" on personhood, it is ok to assume that there is no life present?  How many times has the scientific "consensus" been proven to be wrong?  If there is a chance that the life inside of you is indeed a person, why not err on the side of caution and not potentially kill it?

Also your first point does not hold water.  If someone has no right to live off of your body without your "express ongoing consent", then I guess that you are in favor of allowing infanticide for breastfeeding mothers?  There really is no difference, perhaps you want to argue that personhood doesn't begin until age 2 or later.

lounsey
lounsey

@mmcdonough neither Ireland nor the US are a theocracy, so your 10 Commandments should hold no sway here.

Nobody has the right to be inside my body, or live off it, without my express ongoing consent (assuming, that is, that you consider personhood to begin at conception, which there is no scientific or philosophical consensus on)

Kimberlee
Kimberlee

@forgarden @lounsey @txnicole  no women is owed a child from another women . 

How could you be grateful that a priest sentenced your grandmother to death ? What was her life worth ? I would say that it's selfish to believe you being here is worth your grandmothers LIFE. I can't even form a reply to the "ethnic confusion: garbage. 

EyeEdinburgh
EyeEdinburgh

@forgarden OMG, you're grateful to the priest for deciding to let your great-grandmother die, but not grateful to your great-grandmother? You prolifers really don't have any respect for women as human beings at all. @lounsey @txnicole