Ireland: Abortion laws and the 2018-MAY referendum


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Part 1 of three parts.

Ireland: Abortion laws and
the 2018-MAY referendum:

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2017-OCT: The Government of Ireland announced plans for a referendum on abortion access.

Ed Power, writing for the Spectator newspaper in the UK feared the worst:

"So the starting pistol has been fired on what is sure to be twelve months of hyperventilating hipsters, jangling rosary beads and a stampede from both the pro-choice and pro-life lobbies towards the moral high ground. The majority of the population -- broadly in favour of a liberalisation of the law but against abortion in all circumstances -- is already donning figurative hard hats and bracing for the worst. ..."

"According to the Atlantic [magazine], right-wing American groups have been pouring hundreds of thousands into the anti-abortion campaign in Ireland, which they regard as the last stronghold against western European liberalism. For all that, pro-lifers have a thoroughly modern appreciation of the importance of image. When you see an Irish anti-abortion protest on television, it is invariably fronted by smiling young people with glowing complexions and excellent dental work (suspiciously excellent by local standards).

But they’re just the millennial icing on top, with these pro-life marches overwhelmingly consisting of the middle aged and elderly. Every Irish family has one in its ranks, who is convinced the country hocked its soul when it shrugged off theocracy in the Sixties and Seventies." 10

Comparing the Brexit -- the referendum to withdraw the UK from the European Union -- to the abortion referendum, Power wrote:

"Boris v Brussels is nothing compared to the tsunami of vitriol, iffy fashion, and toxic self-righteousness about to come crashing down on the heads of the Irish public." 10

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2018: Abortion laws in Ireland are currently quite restrictive:

Article 40.3.3 of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution almost completely outlaws all abortions in Ireland. No other democracy in the western world has such restrictions on abortion. The Article states:

"The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn [embryo or fetus], with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." 1

That is, a woman cannot have an abortion in Ireland unless her pregnancy has endangered her life. That would be a very rare occurrence.

A Constitutional Amendment was passed by a 62.4% majority of voters during 1992-NOV. It allows:

  • Women to freely travel abroad to obtain an abortion if they wish.

  • Doctors in Ireland and others to inform women about the possibility of them leaving the country to obtain an abortion elsewhere. 2

Since 1980, about 170,000 adults and teens have left Ireland to obtain an abortion. Most went to the UK or the Netherlands. This rate is equivalent to about 4,500 each year. However, the number has been steadily decreasing in recent years. In the UK Irish women are not eligible for free abortions. They typically cost £560 to £1,800 (U.S. $760 to $2,440) 3 depending on how soon in pregnancy they are performed. During 2016, 3,265 women from Ireland had abortions in England or Wales. 2 The decline in recent years is probably as a result of some women illegally obtaining abortion pills or legally obtaining emergency contraception (a.k.a. the "Morning After Pill"). 4

Dr. Patricia Lohr, the Medical Director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, addressed the Irish government's Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. She said that most of the women seeking abortions were trying to avoid the possibility of pregnancy when they conceived. 2

On 2018-MAY-25, the last Friday in May, citizens will be able to vote in a referendum whether to delete Article 40.3.3. However, if they were not already on the electoral register, they must have registered to vote on or before MAY-07.

This referendum is the sixth in the past 35 years about abortion. 3

It is expected that if the Article is deleted, it would be replaced by a law that gives women free access to abortions within Ireland up to 12 weeks gestation -- approximately the first trimester. There would be a 3 day/72 hour waiting period before an abortion could be performed. Later abortions would only be available in cases of risk to a mother's life or health, or fatal fetal abnormalities. 5

Most of the political parties in Ireland support the repeal of the Article. However, the main government parties -- Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would give their members a free vote in Parliament.

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A less than honest promotion by some groups advocating the "YES" vote:

Both groups -- those who support a "YES" vote and those who support a "NO" vote are passionately motivated. Sometimes, under these circumstances, campaigners will stretch the truth a bit to promote their side.

During the lead-up to the referendum, some pro-choice groups extensively used the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar to bolster their case. During 2012, she had been pregnant for 17 weeks and had developed sepsis, a blood infection. The doctors did not recognize the seriousness of her condition. If they had, then they would have realized that she needed an abortion in order to save her life. Under the law at the time, she would have been eligible to have her pregnancy terminated.

By the time that doctors became aware of the critical nature of her infection, her case was hopeless. Even if she were given an abortion at that point, she would not have survived. She died in hospital, and her fetus died very shortly afterward. Even an emergence Caesarian Section would not have saved the life of the fetus, because she or he was not viable at that stage of pregnancy, and would not have been viable for over a month.

The groups who used her death to support the "YES" vote on the 2018-MAY-25 referendum were deceiving the voters. If the "YES" vote succeeds and Section 40.3.3 of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution is repealed, then the new abortion bill will probably become law. Then, if a case like Savita's were to be repeated in the future, the outcome would be the same. The woman would die. That is because the new abortion law that is being proposed will not allow a woman to choose to have an abortion after 12 weeks gestation unless two doctors -- one obstetrician, and one "appropriate medical practitioner' -- can certify that in their opinion, a continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to serious harm to the pregnant woman's physical or mental health. 10 If a situation arose like Savita's after the new law is passed, where the doctors did not realize how serious the risk is to the life of a pregnant woman, then she might still be denied an abortion and would probably die. So, the widespread posters of Savita Halappanavar's portrait with the words: "never again" are -- in my opinion -- somewhat dishonest.

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. The doctors would still have to justify giving here an abortion under the new law.

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Predictions of the outcome of the referendum:

As of MAY-07, slightly more than two weeks before the referendum, the outcome of the referendum was difficult to predict.

  • Polls showed that decided voters are 57% in favor of repeal and 43% opposed. However, 18% were undecided -- a large percentage.

  • Jody Corcoran, writing for the Independent in Ireland said:

    "... the poll overall finds some movement in favour of repeal, with strong support among young people in urban areas, and particularly among women in the lower-middle and skilled working social classes' cohort."

  • There is a strong urban-rural divide. Polls show that 51% of those in Dublin favor repeal while only 37% in Connacht/Ulster do. 6

On the day before the referendum, polls showed that the outcome was even more difficult to predict.

If the voters vote "NO" to preserve the Eighth Amendment, it is almost inevitable that another referendum will be held in the future.

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Roman Catholic Bishop Phonsie Cullinan of the Diocese ofWaterford and Lismoretold said that the referendum:

"... will determine whether many Irish babies live or die" and that the matter was "about life and death." 7

He also said that the existing amendment is the only defense against the:

"... ruthless introduction of the deliberate and awful taking of innocent human life as happens in Britain and elsewhere."

Catholic Bishop John Kirby in the Diocese of Clonfert said that:

"... the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' " states that "... direct abortion ... is a 'criminal' practice gravely contrary to the moral law. ... The consequences of what is being proposed are far-reaching. It will not just be about the pregnant woman. Healthcare facilities and workers here may well be obliged to participate in abortions or give referrals to abortion providers, even if they do not believe in [allowing women to choose to have an] abortion."

Catholic Bishop Ray Browne of Kerry claims that most politicians:

"... support a system of abortion similar to Britain. ... The unborn child does not just become human at birth. The right to life of the unborn child is a fundamental right. 7

The Association of Catholic Priests, is a small group of priests with a membership about 1,000 liberal Irish clerics. They were concerned that parishes were:

"... allowing their pulpits to be used by campaigners [advocating a "NO" vote] during Mass" 7

"... We believe it would be better if this practice ceased for the rest of the campaign. We wish the Irish people well in this immensely important decision awaiting all of us. The leadership of the Association of Catholic Priests will have no further engagement in this debate." 8

They issued a statement on MAY-05 saying that:

"As an association representing Catholic priests, we fully endorse the Catholic teaching that all human life, from beginning to end, is sacred, and that every human person shares in the fundamental right to life."

"... we do not wish to tell anyone how they should vote. ... A vote cast in accordance with each person’s conscience, whatever the result, deserves the respect of all." 8

But they went on to assert:

We are also aware, and are constantly reminded in our ministry, that human life is complex, throwing up situations that are more often gray than black and white and that demand from us a sensitive, non-judgmental, pastoral approach. Also, as leadership of an association made up of men who are unmarried and without children of our own, we are not best placed to be in any way dogmatic on this issue.

We do not wish to tell anyone how they should vote. But we encourage both ourselves and any citizens who may be interested in our viewpoint, to do the best we can to acquaint ourselves with exactly what we are being asked to vote for, and what the possible consequences of our vote may be. Having done that to the best of our ability, and following it with the, often painful and difficult, task of consulting our conscience, let us cast our vote. 8

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Webmaster's comment:

One of the driving forces behind the conflicts over abortion is the lack of consensus of when human life becomes a human person.

The definition of "life," as used generally by the medical profession, requires four active properties, one of which is the ability to reproduce. A single spermatozoon is unable to divide and make two spermatozoa; an ovum is unable to divide and make two ova. Thus neither is a form of human life. However a zygote -- often loosely referred to as a fertilized ovum -- can divide. This is how identical twins are formed.Thus, a zygote, -- and later in pregnancy, an embryo, and a fetus -- are all all forms of human life.

Meanwhile, a newborn is generally regarded as a human person. But there is no agreement on when a human life becomes a human person. Some say it happens:

  • at conception; or
  • when its heartbeat can be heard; or
  • when it loses its gill slits and tail, and begins to look human; or
  • when its higher brain functions first turn on about 24 weeks into pregnancy, or
  • when it first becomes sentient, and becomes aware of its environment; or
  • when it is viable; or
  • when it has half-emerged from her or his mother's body; or
  • when its umbilical cord is cut, or
  • after birth when she or he goes through a naming ceremony,
  • etc.

When she or he becomes a human person, most adults feel that an abortion should not be a free choice of the pregnant woman, but should be be restricted to some degree to situations where a continued pregnancy would result in the death or serious disability of the mother.

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2018-MAY-07: Amnesty International promotes a "Yes" vote:

They launched their "It's time to talk" campaign in favor of a "Yes" vote. An article on their web site states:

"The campaign was launched today with Minister for Health Simon Harris and independent Senator Lynn Ruane, who was a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, joining Amnesty International Ireland Executive Director Colm O’Gorman to chat with traders on Dublin’s Moore Street.

'It’s taken a long time to get here, and we’ve heard a lot from politicians of late, but now it is over to the people. 'From this point forward, it will be the conversations people have with friends and family that will decide this crucial referendum," said Minister Simon Harris.

'I believe Ireland is a country that wants to treat women with respect and compassion, and that once people really engage with the issues they will see that a ‘Yes’ vote is the only way to do that. Unless we remove the Eighth Amendment from our Constitution, we will continue to force thousands of women and girls in this country to go abroad to access abortions and thousands more to use abortion pills in their own homes and without proper medical supervision. The shame, the isolation; it’s time to talk about the reality of that, and to change it.'

Senator Ruane spoke about the importance of the referendum result to women and girls in every community across Ireland:

'I’ve seen some people suggest that this issue is being dictated by ‘elites’. In fact, it is powerful elites who have for decades blocked women’s access to abortion and reproductive healthcare in Ireland', said Senator Lynn Ruane.

'But it is very often marginalised women who need access to abortion the most who are least likely to be able to get it. This referendum is about working class women,  it’s about women everywhere. We need a conversation that is inclusive of all our communities. We cannot be airbrushed out or dismissed. This referendum is about us too'." 9

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Bruce Haring, "U2 Tweet On Ireland Abortion Referendum Draws Fire From Pro-Life Fans," Deadline Hollywood, 2018-MAY-06, at: http://deadline.com/
  2. Órla Rya, "Here's how many women and girls travel to the UK for abortions," The Journal, 2018-MAY-06, at: http://www.thejournal.ie/
  3. "Ireland’s abortion referendum: ‘It’s painful and it’s personal’," The Guardian, 2018-MAY-13, at: https://www.theguardian.com/
  4. Bernd Biege, "Contraceptives and the Morning-After-Pill in Ireland," TripSavvy, 2017-MAY-16, at: https://www.tripsavvy.com/
  5. Calvin Freiburger, "Irish Hollywood stars come out in support of repealing 8th Amendment protecting the preborn," Life Site News, 2018-MAY-08, at: https://www.lifesitenews.com/
  6. Jody Corcoran "Poll: Young urban women giving Yes side referendum edge - but it is a narrow lead," The Independent, 2018-MAY-07, at: https://www.independent.ie/
  7. Sarah MacDonald, "Bishop warns of 'criminal practice' as Church raises the pressure for No vote in referendum," The Independent, 2018-MAY-06, at: https://www.independent.ie/
  8. Claire Chretien, "Betrayal: Irish priest group won’t tell Catholics to vote against abortion," Life Site News, 2018-MAY-11, at: https://www.lifesitenews.com/
  9. "It's time to talk: Amnesty International launches campaign for a Yes vote to repeal the eighth amendment," Amnesty International, Ireland, 2018-APR-10, at: https://www.amnesty.ie/
  10. David Kenny & Pat Leahy, "What would replace the Eighth Amendment: The text, the law, the politics," The Irish Times, " 2014-MAY-24, at: https://www.irishtimes.com/

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Original posting: 2018-MAY-08
Latest update: 2018-MAY-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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