Ireland: An Anti-Choicer’s Wet Dream

By Lyndsay Kirkham

Flickr/Elena
Ireland’s abortion ban is one of the strictest in the world, representing a clear intent to criminalize women’s reproductive health care.

The craggy-edged island sitting to the west of Great Britain is comprised of two distinct countries that have been politically disassociated for almost 100 years. Yet The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remain united in at least one critical way: both kill women and force birth on citizens with their shamefully antiquated and misogynist abortion regulations.

As international pro-choice communities grapple with the impact of last Friday’s gendered terrorism at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, and North American lawmakers continue to pass restrictive amendments that govern reproductive rights, we need to increase our awareness of the women living in the Irelands who are struggling to access even the most basic of abortion services.

A Primer On Restrictive Abortion Laws

The Republic of Ireland

republic of ireland

If you are pregnant in The Republic of Ireland, you represent little more than a vessel containing the “unborn,” with your human and constitutional rights considered on par with the pregnancy you carry; no matter the potential threat to your health, the condition of the developing fetus, or your desire to be pregnant, you have to see pregnancy through to its end.

The 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, introduced and approved in 1983, gives an unborn fetus an absolute constitutional “right to life” that is equal to the mother. Seen as separate beings from conception, fetuses are granted legal counsel in Irish courts. The one provision to the 8th Amendment is if the mother’s death is imminent — a constitutional change made too late to save Savita Halappanavar, who died of septicemia in 2012 because she was denied an abortion.

Ireland’s abortion ban is one of the strictest in the world, representing a clear intent to criminalize women’s reproductive health care under the auspices of morality, church, and state. Currently, in The Republic of Ireland, even in cases where a woman is raped or discovers that her pregnancy is terminal or complicated by fetal abnormalities, she is denied abortion care. Women have zero agency in Ireland’s palaver on abortion — and the privilege of choice simply doesn’t exist.

Northern Ireland

northern ireland

Northern Ireland is a country full of UK citizens making use of the UK’s National Health Care System (NHS) for all the same procedures as fellow citizens living in England. The one exception? Abortion.

Women living in Northern Ireland pay tax into the United Kingdom’s coffers and carry the same passport as someone living in Bath or Bristol, yet are subject to abortion laws that predate UK’s Abortion Act of 1967. Under some of the world’s most punitive criminalization of abortion, Northern Irish citizens face harsh prison sentences if it’s discovered that they’ve sought abortion care on the country’s soil. This includes ingestion of the abortion pill Misoprostol, which thanks to the Internet, is now more easily attainable than ever for women in the country.

On November 30, Northern Ireland made a move that, at face value, represented progress on the reproductive-rights front. To the frustration and “disappointment” of anti-choice groups, Belfast’s high court acknowledged that the country’s existing abortion law, which matches that of The Republic of Ireland, contravenes a woman’s basic human rights. It appears that if the ruling goes unchallenged (there are fears that the current Attorney General, John Lark, intends to appeal Judge Horner’s decision), this ruling will grant permission for practitioners to perform abortions.

Yet even this ostensibly “groundbreaking” move is problematic. As Northern Ireland’s pro-choice groups have pointed out, Horner is really only making abortion accessible to those who have been raped, ignoring those who simply want to terminate a pregnancy. At the same time, it asks women to prove rape, incest, or an extensive fetal abnormality. Given the finite time a woman can receive abortion care and the inherent difficulty in proving rape, it’s clear that many wanted abortions still wouldn’t happen under this judicial change.

We also need to acknowledge that this new pathway to accessing abortion will be tightly guarded by systems that inhibit a woman’s agency, requiring the head nods and signatures of numerous “experts.” In the light of day, Monday’s decision still denies women the right to make any choice about her reproductive health.

The Reality: In Both Countries, Women Are Aborting

According to the World Health Organization’s “unsafe abortion” report, “The prevalence of unsafe abortions remains the highest in the 82 countries with the most restrictive legislations, up to 23 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–49 years.” In other words, in countries where barriers exist, women are still seeking abortion care — but the consequences too often result in maternal death.

In the face of archaic restrictions in the Irelands, we know that women are still having abortions. We know that in an effort to abort, over 3,745 women traveled from Ireland to England in 2014, and at least 4,500 women annually make the same journey from Northern Ireland. We know that women are not paying their electric bills so that they can buy passage to the Netherlands or Great Britain. We know that Northern Irish women, who are considered subjects of the UK, are still being forced to pay upwards of 2,000 pounds for the procedure when they are able to fund travel to England. And we know that Irish women are committing behavior that is criminalized when they try to obtain the abortion pill.

It’s important to note that due to the activism of groups such as Abortion Rights Campaign and Choice Ireland, and grassroots organizations like Repeal the 8th Sligo, women are getting the information that they need to receive abortion care outside the The Republic and Northern Ireland. The energy generating from these pro-choice groups, and their allies in government, is also spurring a new glut of campaigning in both digital and on-the-ground platforms.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

A general election will take place in The Republic of Ireland no later than April 8, 2016. Labour, the country’s more liberal popular party, has tabled this law to replace the 8th Amendment. Many of The Republic’s citizens are calling for a change to the demonstratively damaging barriers to women’s health care. Social media campaigns like #repealthe8th, Artist Campaigns, and the support of global human rights partners are pushing Irish leaders to join other developed nations in acknowledging that all women have the right to govern their own bodies.

As we continue to celebrate (despite reservations) Monday’s ruling in Northern Ireland and the breakthrough of 2015’s Marriage Equality Act in The Republic, those of us not living in the Irelands must shore up the work of Irish activists. We must share their struggle, and we must insist that until we all have access to abortion care, we are all oppressed.

There are multiple ways to support the movement, from agitating and writing about North American groups that are financially supporting the anti-choice movement in the Irelands, to signal boosting the #repealthe8th campaign in your social media circles, to signing the Amnesty International petition and other nonprofit appeals calling for a swerve away from this form of misogynist essentialism that enshrines laws making women no more important than the container for a pregnancy.

The island that contains these countries is shockingly beautiful, and visitors leave with a deep sense of having stepped back in time. As outsiders, we must look beyond the tranquil bus tours and cottages on the western coast, and accept that the women in these countries are living with ancient restraints on their freedom.

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