The Catholic Church believes that life begins at the moment of conception. So, when an egg is fertilised, that foetus is a human life. Therefore, the action of an abortion, the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, is considered to be murder, which is henceforth a sin in the Catholic Church. As a result of this, when we bring the idea of abortion into a state that is predominantly Catholic, there is a lot of controversy. In this blog, I will discuss the timeline of events that led a Catholic country to legalise abortions.
The Abortion Act of 1967 legalised abortions on certain grounds by registered practitioners in the UK. This dramatic change was to stop the so called backstreet abortions that were happening at the time- illegal abortions on the streets with equipment that was not sterilised which led to the deaths of many women. This event served as a catalyst to widen the legal grounds for abortion in more than 40 other countries. However, Ireland moved in the opposite direction and in September 1983, they reinforced the existing prohibition under the 1961 Offences Against the Person Act where two thirds of the voters voted that the foetus has the same right to life as the mother.
Before this date, in 1981, a pro-life amendment campaign was launched. The aims of this campaign was to demand an amendment to protect the right to life of the unborn child and that laws should be put in place to make people protect this right. This campaign was predominantly run by medical elite and Catholics. In addition to this, the committee meetings for this campaign were dominated by the Catholic clergy and at the time, there would have been a lot of pressure to not support abortion, with fear of being denounced as a Catholic.
With such a strong view on abortion, women in Ireland who wanted to get one had to travel to the UK. Under the Eighth Amendment, there was no limit to travelling in order to obtain an abortion or to obtain information about services lawfully available in another state. However, this process can be very expensive, especially to those who do not have a large disposable income. A study in 2005 found that individuals spent between 965 and 1,750 euros on average to get an abortion abroad. This is because it requires travel, accommodation and procedural expenses. Not only this, but many have to take time off of work. Many women had to resort to illegal moneylenders in order to fund their trip. This is because of the taboo of talking about abortion. Many women could not even talk to their family about their trip and had to keep it a secret. Between the years of 2001 and 2008, 45,645 women with addresses in the Republic of Ireland visited abortion clinics in Britain. This is an underestimate as not all women would have provided their Irish addresses.
In 1992, there was a case named the “X case” which truly tested the Eighth Amendment. This case involved a 14 year old who had been raped. She threatened to kill herself if she was forced to continue with the pregnancy. Due to the threat of suicide, as a risk to a pregnant woman’s life, the Supreme Court allowed her to get one. The question of suicide as grounds for an abortion then became a large part of discussion as it was seen as untrustworthy, manipulative and deceitful. In fact, the government held a referendum in 1992 and 2002 to exclude the risk of suicide. Both, however, were unsuccessful.
In 2010, 3 women took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in order to challenge the Irish abortion laws. 2 of the women had to get an abortion based on health and well-being, and the other was for risk to life. The third woman had been battling cancer. The Court ruled that the first two cases did not mean that Ireland were obliged to extend the limited grounds for abortion as they are reflective of the moral values of the Irish people. However, they said that the third case required the state to introduce legislative criteria or procedures that allowed for practical assessment of risk to the life of the pregnant woman.
In 2012, after a woman died in Galway hospital after she was refused an abortion during a miscarriage, a campaign started to liberalise abortion. The woman’s husband said that she repeatedly asked for a termination but was refused because there was a foetal heartbeat. 2,000 protesters came together outside the Irish parliament in Dublin to call for the Irish government to urgently reform the Republic’s abortion laws.
A new law in 2013, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, legalises abortion when doctors believe that it is a risk to the woman’s life. The government also introduces a penalty of 14 years imprisonment for having or assisting in an unlawful abortion.
In years after this, the Irish government receives a lot of scrutiny for their laws regarding abortion by the United Nations and other states. In 2015, the UN calls for another referendum as it was concerned with Ireland’s “highly restrictive legislation”. In particular, the UN were concerned with the criminalization of abortion in cases of rape and incest.
In 2017, a Citizens’ Assembly votes to recommend the introduction of unrestricted access to abortion. It votes 64% to 36% in favour of having no restrictions in early pregnancy. After this, the Irish government says that it will hold a referendum in 2018.
Whilst there were many groups around the country advocating to legalise abortion, they came together to make the Together for Yes Campaign in which they sought to make people vote yes in the election. They did this through raising awareness and sharing desperate stories of those who sought to get an abortion but couldn’t.
On the 25th of May 2018, 1,429,981 people said yes to allowing abortion. This 66.4% win allowed the government to introduce legislation allowing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and between 12 and 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.
“What we have seen today really is a culmination of a quiet revolution that’s been taking place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years”Leo Varadkar