Groups like ours helped fight for inclusive, accessible healthcare. Together, we achieved a culture change. But there's a phenomenal amount still to doby Anna Carnegie / January 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
Last year, on May 25th 2018, the Irish public voted emphatically to repeal the country’s constitutional ban on abortion and enable the passage of legislation to provide abortion on request up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and in limited circumstances thereafter.
The months since the referendum were a whirlwind of court challenges, parliamentary debates, marches, and media coverage. Finally, on the 13th December, the Irish senate passed the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018, paving the way for a new law and signifying a much welcome, and long overdue, step forward. On the 20th, President Michael D Higgins signed the bill into law.
While all of this was happening, nothing, practically, changed for people in the Republic of Ireland who need abortions. In the nearly 7 months since the country voted for healthcare at home, almost 2,000 people travelled to England and other jurisdictions to access abortion services. More than 500 more—often those lacking the means or ability to travel—imported and taken safe but illegal abortion pills despite the risk of prosecution.
Highlighting this reality, these stories, has been a crucial aspect of the Abortion Rights Campaign since our formation, and this focus has not stopped since the vote. Now that the legislation has passed, we are eager to see pregnant people be given access to the care they were promised.
This is not to say that the legislation is perfect. Far from it; the Bill departs from the “free, safe, legal and local” standard of care Ireland deserves.
During last summer, when draft legislation was proposed by the Irish Health Minister, the Abortion Rights Campaign set out our vision for accessible, accountable and evidence-based abortion legislation which respects the bodily autonomy of each pregnant person and leaves no one behind.
We advocated against the imposition of a mandatory 3-day waiting period, which has no basis in medical evidence and creates unnecessary barriers for pregnant people. We argued for the full decriminalisation of abortion, so that medical practitioners would not interpret the law overly-cautiously so as to avoid criminal sanctions including up to 14 years in prison.
We emphasised the importance of patient-centered care, and the problems which arise when healthcare practitioners are allowed to refuse to provide on the grounds of so-called “conscientious objection”—something which acts as a significant barrier to abortion access globally, and violates the medical ethical principle of “do no harm.” We expressed our concern over the use of vague and overly-stringent language, which could make it incredibly difficult for people to meet the criteria for abortion after 12 weeks.
We fought for the legislation to be inclusive of all persons, and for legislators to remove the trans-exclusionary references to “woman” throughout (in Ireland, trans people have been able to self-declare their own gender identity since the 2015 Gender Recognition Act).
We advocated for all-island access to abortion, in solidarity with our comrades in Northern Ireland, where the UK parliament’s 1967 Abortion Act does not apply and abortion is still prohibited in almost all circumstances. We were deeply disheartened that the legislature showed so little commitment to these changes, which were also put forward by our allies in other pro-choice groups and by dedicated politicians.
Even with these problems, however, it is undeniable how incredibly far we have come. A few short years ago, the idea of abortion on request in Ireland seemed like a distant dream at best, near impossible at worst. Any talk of change, almost always in the wake of unspeakable tragedy such as the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, focused on the exceptional or so-called “hard cases.”
The word “abortion” was shrouded in shame, stigma and secrecy—to the extent that we were advised to change the name of our organisation in order to be taken seriously.
Reclaiming the word “abortion” and sharing our stories—from those who spoke publicly and on the doorsteps, to the thousands who spoke privately to friends and relatives or shared anonymously about the hurt the 8th amendment had caused—has ushered in this new status quo. When people were asked their reasons for voting yes, almost two-thirds said they were motivated by a person’s “right to choose.” On a cultural level, we have completely and utterly changed the conversation around abortion.
No one should need to bare their souls in order to access basic reproductive rights. We look forward to the day when we will no longer have to, when abortion will be treated as a healthcare matter like any other.
Our campaign for free, safe, legal and local abortion across the island of Ireland will carry on for as long as it is needed. We will keep advocating for those left out of the new law. We will continue to show solidarity to our comrades across Ireland, and globally, recognising that this is not an isolated fight. That we are all in this together. What we have achieved is phenomenal. And there’s a phenomenal amount still to do.