Ireland announces abortion law reforms, leaving no one satisfied
The new legislation is meant to clarify Ireland's stance on abortion when the mother's health is at risk, but antiabortion groups say it goes too far, and abortion-rights groups not far enough.
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Ireland is still reeling after the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year old Indian woman who died after a miscarriage in a Galway hospital in October. Ms. Halappanavar's widower, Praveen, claims his wife was denied an abortion that would have saved her life. Two separate inquires into Halappanavar's death are underway.Skip to next paragraph
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As soon as Halappanavar's death was made public, abortion-rights groups started holding regular protests outside Ireland's government offices and Parliament. After a few weeks of relative silence, antiabortion groups have upped the ante, holding their own demonstrations and leaflet campaigns. Now, both sides are poised for a fight.
Veteran feminist campaigner Ailbhe Smyth says Irish politicians are only acting because public opinion has forced its hand.
"Successive governments have been pusillanimous and completely cowardly on the whole issue. It's beginning to become apparent to our legislators that there is a sense for movement on this issue," she says.
However, antiabortion campaigners make similar claims of support and, unusually, are united with their opponents in calling for a public referendum on abortion.
Youth Defense spokesperson Ide Nic Mhathúna says her group will be stepping-up campaigning in response to the government decision, slamming the proposed legislation.
"Controlled murder is still not acceptable just because it's controlled," she says.
Ms. Nic Mhathúna also questioned recent media coverage of the issue in Ireland. "The entire media is blatantly pro-abortion. A lot of people are afraid to say they're 100 percent pro-life," she says.
Part of a larger debate
The renewed campaigning puts Ireland at the epicenter of an international struggle. The Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, recently told the Sunday Business Post newspaper it would be funding groups including Youth Defense to the tune of “hundreds of thousands of dollars."
According to Pro-Life Action League's Eric Scheidler, Ireland is of importance to American antiabortion activists because it is a modern nation and yet, until now, all but banned abortion. "It's unusual to have all of modernity but still not have abortion, so those of us who seek to have legal protections for the right to life look at it as an example that this state of affairs can exist," he told The Monitor.
Choice Ireland's Sinéad Ahern says abortion-rights groups do not have similarly deep pockets and a full-blown campaign would be very uneven.
"There is no parity in terms of funding. It would make a huge difference for our campaign to have a bit more reach. Even something as basic as a leaflet campaign is quite difficult for us [and] we have no staff," she says.
Despite being portrayed in the world's media in the wake of Halappanavar's death as a bastion of Catholicism, Irish views on abortion are nuanced.
An opinion poll conducted by research firm Red-C found 85 percent those surveyed said they wanted the government to legislate for the X case, "which means allowing abortion where the mother's life is threatened, including by suicide." As far back as 1997, 77 percent of Irish people surveyed said there should be some access to abortion.
However, the same poll found a further 63 percent supported the removal from any legislation of the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion.
Ivana Bacik, a senator and law professor who is known for her abortion-rights campaigning, says the Irish political class is playing catch-up with public opinion on abortion.
"I think public opinion had already changed before the death of Savita Halappanavar, but it was solidified," she says. "There was a huge fear of the antichoice movement but more and more people are willing to see abortion legislated for."