I’m not really clear on what this referendum is about. What are we voting on exactly?
This referendum is about asking the people of Ireland whether they want to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Irish Constitution and enable the Oireachtas to the Oireachtas can legislate for access to abortion.
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution (Article 40.3.3) was introduced in 1983. It created the right to life of a developing embryo or foetus, making this equal to the right to life of a pregnant woman or girl, from the moment of conception.
In practice it amounts to a near total abortion ban, allowing for abortion only where there is a risk to the life of the woman or girl. It is also why there is a 14-year prison sentence in law for women or medical professionals who access or provide abortion outside this narrow limit. This means Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, which causes women and girls suffering and distress. As the Constitution is the supreme law in Ireland, access to abortion cannot be expanded for any other reason until the Eighth Amendment is removed.
Only the citizens of Ireland can decide to change the Constitution, by voting in a referendum. This referendum will ask voters whether or not they want to ‘repeal’ (i.e. remove completely) the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution, and put in its place new wording enabling the Oireachtas to create new laws making properly
regulated abortion available.
What sort of legislation is the government proposing to put in place after the referendum?
The Department of Health published the General Scheme of a Bill to Regulate Termination of Pregnancy on March 28 setting out the law the government hopes to enact if the referendum is passed. Based on this, the law would allow abortion on request “without specific indication”, restricted to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. It would allow abortion in later pregnancy where there is a risk to the health or life of the pregnant woman, or where there is a diagnosis of a fatal foetal anomaly. This would still make Irish law on abortion access among the most restrictive in Europe.
Why is it important to provide access ‘on request’ up to 12 weeks?
Women don’t often realise that they’re pregnant right away. Normally they find out after missing a period, which can mean they have already been pregnant for four to six weeks. If the woman or girl has been using contraception, or if she has irregular periods, it may take even longer. Once she does realise, she needs time to make an unhurried, considered decision. Women invariably seek care as early as possible once that decision has been made. This is why allowing for abortion on request up to 12 weeks is the minimum to ensure pregnant women and girls can consider their personal or family circumstances, get all the information they need, and make the decision that is right for them.
I’ve heard that the proposal to allow access to abortion on request up to 12-weeks is important particularly for survivors of rape and incest who need abortions. Why is this?
Forcing a woman or girl who has been raped to continue that pregnancy is cruel. But including a ‘rape exception’ in law or in the Constitution has been shown in other countries not to work. In almost every country that legislates for abortion on the ground of rape women and girls are made to go through traumatic and humiliating processes to ‘prove’ the rape occurred. Often this requires a woman or girl to report to the police or to get certification from a judge. These requirements can often traumatise the rape survivor again. This is why the Citizens’ Assembly decided that providing abortion on request up to 12 weeks is the best way to ensure early access for survivors of rape, and why the Government agreed.
I’m a bit worried because I’ve heard repeal will open the floodgates to abortion on demand up to birth.
Abortion is a reality in Ireland already. Restrictive abortion laws don’t stop abortions. But women don’t make these decisions on a whim.
There are always reasons, and these are deeply personal decisions not taken lightly. We need to respect the decisions women make for themselves, their lives and their families.
All states regulate access to abortion, and that is what the government is proposing. The law the government proposes to introduce if the Eighth Amendment is repealed would regulate access in a way that is broadly in line with best medical practice and women’s human rights. There would be a 12-week time limit on access to abortion on request. Only in other limited circumstances can a women get an abortion after 12 weeks, e.g. if her health is at risk.
However, until the Eighth Amendment is repealed and a new law is passed in the Oireachtas, our current law stands. The 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act will continue to allow abortion access only where the life of a woman or girl is at risk. So abortion won’t be unregulated when the Eighth Amendment is repealed. Changing the current law will require a lengthy process of discussion and debate in the Oireachtas.
Also, women will choose to have abortions as early as possible. So regardless of what the law provides, we know that the vast majority of women will opt for abortion before 12 weeks.
Won’t the ‘unborn’ have any legal protections if the Eighth Amendment is repealed?
The laws that the government is proposing will provide protections for foetal welfare. For example it will restrict access on request to the first 12 weeks. We still want to protect foetal interests. States can do that, but they have to do so in a way that doesn’t violate the rights of women and girls. The law can protect both, but that’s impossible as long as the Constitution says that a developing foetus has equal rights as the pregnant woman.
How does giving equal right to life to the unborn mean the pregnant woman’s rights are violated?
The Eighth Amendment has had disastrous consequences. The Health Service Executive inquiry into Savita Halappanavar’s death found that the Eighth Amendment directly contributed. In fact, Savita died because her miscarrying foetus was given precedence over her health and ultimately her life, even though the foetus could never have survived.
It also caused the grotesque situation where two sets of lawyers argued in Ireland’s High Court over whether a braindead pregnant woman’s life-support could be ended, with one set of lawyers acting for the foetus. Even though this was devastating for her family—who wanted her to be able to die with dignity—and appalling to her doctors, the state still had to carry out its duty to vindicate the Eighth Amendment’s ‘right to life’ of the foetus.
Doesn’t the Eighth Amendment stop women having abortions? I’ve heard that it has saved 100,000 lives.
No. Banning or heavily restricting abortion doesn’t stop abortions from happening. It just makes the abortions that do happen less safe.
It may prevent a small number of women from having abortions in certain circumstances. There will be women who can’t travel abroad for an abortion because they have a disability, or because they are migrants. They may not be able to access abortion pills online illegally like other women, so these bans hit them the hardest, forcing them to continue with pregnancies no matter how devastating the impact on them and their families.
‘100,000 lives saved’ is based on an estimation, not real data. There is no real evidence to support it. It is a red herring.
If a state wants to lower abortion rates, it should make sure people have proper sex education, especially young people, and provide access to contraception, including emergency contraception.
Abortion isn’t a ‘problem’ to be solved – unwanted or health-harming pregnancies are.
Didn’t we already get a new abortion law in 2013? Hasn’t it provided clarity and support for the women who really need abortions?
The current law, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, doesn’t work. For example if a woman or girl’s life is at risk because she is suicidal, she has to convince up to seven doctors that she is ‘suicidal enough’ to be given an abortion. A woman whose life is at risk literally has to beg for healthcare. Who would put themselves through that? Evidence has shown that even where a woman or girl should qualify for a legal abortion in Ireland, they still choose to travel because of how complicated and brutal the legal process can be.
The law has also done nothing to change the situation where 10 to 12 women or girls travel to access abortion services in England and Wales and the Netherlands every day, or order medical abortion pills illegally online. Repealing the Eighth will allow us to introduce legislation to help make these abortions regulated, early and safe.
I’ve heard that in the UK 90% of pregnancies with Down Syndrome are aborted. I’m afraid this will happen here.
Firstly, the law the government is proposing won’t allow abortion on grounds of potential disability as it will not cover non-fatal foetal impairment.
The reason so many women in Ireland go ahead with pregnancies after getting a diagnosis of Down Syndrome is because they choose to and not because our law doesn’t allow abortion. Those who choose to end their pregnancies in these circumstances are doing so anyway by travelling to another country.
If society wants to respect and care for people with disabilities and their families, it must provide them with the care, services and supports they need. So if the state is genuinely interested in reducing the rate of termination of pregnancies where Down Syndrome or other potential disability is diagnosed, it must adopt effective approaches. It must invest in initiatives to tackle the stigma and discrimination associated with disability. It must strengthen services and opportunities, so that people with disabilities can reach their full potential, and their families are not struggling.
The 90 percent figure is not true, because this is the percentage of women who choose to be tested for Down Syndrome. When those who choose not to get tested are counted, the figure is much lower.
Isn’t it true that many women regret their abortions?
While choosing to have a termination is never an easy experience, by far the most common feeling reported by women after an abortion is relief. There’s no credible research that says abortion damages women‘s mental health. Of course some women who have abortions regret their decision. Deciding to end a pregnancy can be a difficult decision, and we all regret some decisions that we make in life. But that is not a justification for taking away the right of all women to make this decision.
Instead, we need to make sure that every woman and girl in Ireland can
make a decision about a pregnancy, with plenty of time and support to make
the decision that’s right for her and her family. We must ensure that women
and girls are provided with healthcare information and counselling, explaining the full range of options available to them in their particular circumstances.
Until we repeal the Eighth Amendment, this can’t happen.
Don’t abortions harm women?
No. Abortion is a very safe medical procedure, except where it’s unlawful and unregulated. In reality childbirth carries far more health risks than abortion, and the earlier the abortion is the safer it is.
Scaremongering and lies about abortion causing infertility, breast cancer and mental health problems, are often used by anti-abortion groups to frighten women out of accessing abortion care.
Won’t repeal of the Eighth Amendment lead to unrestricted access to abortion up to birth?
No. The law being proposed by the Government restricts access on request to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After that, it’s only allowed in cases where there’s a risk to the life or health or there’s a diagnosis of a fatal foetal anomaly.
Women have late-term abortions for different reasons. For example, in cases of fatal foetal anomaly, abortions generally happen after 20 weeks because it’s not possible to diagnose the anomaly before then.
In other situations, the health of the woman or girl may deteriorate during a pregnancy, and giving birth would cause serious harm to her, or even lead to her death. These are all extremely difficult situations, as these are usually much-wanted pregnancies and these diagnoses are devastating to the woman and her family. These are all women and girls who must be treated with compassion and supported to access the abortions they need.
In the UK, only 1.6 percent of abortions happen after 20 weeks, and even then they are only allowed when there are very compelling reasons. There’s not a single country in the World that allows access to abortion on request up to birth.
Do men have a right to be involved in abortion decisions?
Every day, men across Ireland are supporting women in their decisions around how to plan their families, including whether or not to continue pregnancies. But women alone have the right to make decisions about if and when they have children and what happens to their body.
Women or girls often decide to involve their partners or other people in helping them make a decision on whether to continue a pregnancy. But they must never be forced to do so. And of course, this would be incredibly damaging and dangerous in situations where the relationship is abusive or where the pregnancy is the result of rape.
What’s to stop more liberal laws being passed in the future by other governments?
It has taken 35 years, seven governments, a European Court of Human Rights ruling, the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, Ireland being repeatedly hauled before the United Nations, a massive public campaign, a Citizens’ Assembly, and a special Joint Oireachtas Committee to get us to this referendum. There is no evidence to suggest Ireland’s abortion laws will change quickly in the future.