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Abortion debate heats up in Ireland as law revision looms

A team of experts is set to issue recommendations on how to clarify once-staunchly Catholic Ireland's abortion laws, spurring both pro-life and pro-choice groups to take to the streets.

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Further complicating matters, Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom, technically outlaws abortions under the same Offenses Against the Person statute dating back to 1861. Despite this, family planning charity Marie Stopes has announced plans to open a clinic in Belfast next Thursday offering medical abortions, sparking outrage from anti-abortion campaigners. British law permitting abortion was never extended to Northern Ireland, but a legal loophole was created by the judgment in the 1938 Bourne case in England, allowing abortions if a doctor agrees the pregnant woman is at immediate risk or if there is a long-term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health.

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War of words

Pro-life groups say Ireland must simply clarify its position on maternal health, and fear any change in the law could lead to a situation of abortion-on-demand, analogous, they say, with the situation in the United Kingdom. Pro-choice groups claim the government now has a duty to allow abortions, albeit in limited circumstances.

One of the key fears of pro-life supporters is that the government could interpret "life of the mother" to include not just physical health, but mental health as well – thereby potentially increasing the availability of abortions under the exception.

"In every country where abortion has been legislated [for] on mental health grounds, it had led to abortion-on-demand," says Caroline Simons of Pro Life Campaign.

Ms. Simons also notes the ECHR judgment does not demand that Ireland allow abortion, merely that it clarify a contradiction between its Constitution and the 1992 Supreme Court decision. Thus, she says, there's no imperative to introduce abortion-on-demand.

But pro-choice activist Sinéad Redmond, who helped organize a 2,000-strong "March for Choice" demonstration in Dublin on Sept. 29 – an unusually large turnout by Irish standards – says abortion-on-demand is not the matter being discussed.

"I think that's really offensive toward women," she says. "First, they're saying mental health isn't real health, and, second, they're saying women are going to lie to doctors."

Ms. Redmond is one of a new generation of pro-choice activists who have been spurred on partly in response to anti-abortion campaigning. She started campaigning about abortion just this year, as she felt anti-abortion campaigns used "false advertising and misrepresentation of abortion" – and says her peers feel similarly.

"We have a newly active generation coming up. People of my generation – I'm 27 – just assume [other] people are pro-choice. I don't find it frightening to talk about and I don't think it should be frightening to talk about," she says.

Tactical shift

One anti-abortion group, Youth Defence, appears to have shifted its approach with a recent high-profile billboard campaign with the slogan "Abortion tears her life apart." The campaign seems meant to emphasize the potential impact of abortion on women, instead of the right to life that previous campaigns have focused on.

But Youth Defence spokesperson Ide Nic Mhathuna denies any significant change in tactics. "I don't think it's a softer focus, we just need to acknowledge there are two victims there. The woman making the decision is affected [and] it would be wrong for us to ignore that.


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