Last week marked a famous milestone in the history of social medicine in Ireland, as parliament passed a bill to allow women to have an abortion if and only when a woman's life is under threat or if she is suicidal. Despite the very tough restrictions on those who qualify to be able to have an abortion, this small development is considered to be a big step forward for Ireland, which until last week, had a near total abortion ban.
The Republic of Ireland is a highly Catholic Country with 84.2% of the citizens identifying themselves as Catholics in the last census in 2011. The Catholic church's teachings on abortion is that humans must show the utmost respect for every human life from fertilisation to natural death, so this means rejecting abortion on the basis that it deliberately takes a unique human life'. In addition to this, in 1983, pressure from the church and religious groups meant that an amendment to the law was made which stated that from the moment of conception, an embryo conceived in Ireland is an Irish citizen, and therefore is granted the same rights as every man, woman and child living in the republic.
As a result, up until now, there have been very strict laws on abortion in Ireland. But that has not prevented thousands of women leaving Ireland and taking a trip to a nearby country to have an abortion. Statistics indicate that approximately 140,000 women have travelled abroad to obtain abortions since the 1980s. More recent figures show that almost 4,000 Irish women travelled to England and Wales for an abortion during 2012.
Now, following the introduction of the protection of life in pregnancy bill which was passed on July 11, if a woman's life is at risk as a result of pregnancy, or if she is suicidal, then legally, the pregnancy can be terminated.
Over the last months, the irish abortion issue has created a lot of discussion at home in Ireland, and received a lot of media attention worldwide. It comes as a result of Savita Halappanavar's death in an Irish hospital in October last year after being taken to hospital because she was having a miscarriage. Despite her medical condition, she was refused the right to an abortion. As a result, she suffered a serious and life-threatening deterioration in her health and died from a combination of a blood infection and organ failure three days later.
Although the legislation at the time was too strict to allow hospitals to intervene, her death then triggered a nationwide debate on the law and a call to legalise abortion in certain cases when there is a medical emergency or if the mother is suicidal.
This is not the first time that such a case has been brought to the attention of the Irish public. Back in 1992, the country was in the midst of one of the most controversial and closely-followed legal battles in its history. In that case, the person at the centre of it was a 14 year old girl who discovered she was pregnant after being raped. At that time in 1992, abortion was not an option because the law stated the right of the unborn child's right to life was equal to the mother's right to life. The family of the girl took the decision to travel outside of Ireland to the UK, so that she could have an abortion, but this was consequently banned. Despite the parents calls for an exception due to psychological proof that the girl was suicidal, she was prevented from leaving the country in order to protect the life of the unborn child.
Finally in March 1992, the girl and her family did succeed in bringing case X to the Supreme Court, and then she was allowed to travel outside of Ireland to proceed with an abortion. After all of the proceedings, she actually miscarried the baby while at hospital in England. After her case, there was a breakthrough at the supreme court, but no legislation was ever put in place.
The new law as of July 2013 now means that a woman or girls' life will be protected over that of the unborn baby. While this is a big and long awaited change- including years of protest, not to mention the final two-day debate in the Dáil last week, pro-choice campaign groups are already calling for further developments in legislation. They want abortion to be legalised for women who become pregnant as result of rape, women whose unborn foetus is known to have fatal anomalies, as well as cases where women (or couples, or families) simply cannot afford to become pregnant.
The Irish law does not recognise the above cases as qualifying for the right to abortion, and considering the length of time it took to to legislate on the X case, it is expected that thousands of Irish women will continue to travel and pay privately for an abortion in England or nearby countries to obtain an abortion and evade a prison sentence up to 14 years long for procuring or seeking an abortion in Ireland.