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.

Ireland does not seem an obvious locale for heated debate over abortion laws. After all, abortion has been illegal in the once-staunchly Catholic country since before its creation in 1922.

But a 1992 Irish Supreme Court ruling complicated that ban by permitting abortion in cases where the pregnant woman's life is at risk. Despite this, successive governments did not take legal steps that reflected that judgment, and abortion has become a political "third rail," even after a 2010 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment forced the issue.

Now, a government-appointed "expert group" is nearing its long-delayed announcement of recommendations on how to clarify Irish abortion laws and comply with the ECHR judgment – and has touched off the abortion debate in Ireland once again.

What was once a simple, if highly divisive, matter of rights – the right to life vs. the right to individual autonomy – has shifted into softer, therapeutic territory: a debate over what approach best serves the interests of the expectant mother.

A conflicted legal history

Ireland's law against abortion was inherited from a British law enacted in 1861. It has never gone off the books, making Ireland one of only two nations in the European Union to ban abortion completely (the other being Malta). Ireland also amended its Constitution in 1983 to recognize a right to life in the unborn, "with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother."

But in 1992, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that abortion was permitted if there was "a real and substantial risk" to the life of the mother. This judgment came in the wake of the X Case, when a 14-year-old girl, who was suicidal after becoming pregnant following a rape, was sequestered by the state in order to stop her obtaining an abortion in the UK. She subsequently miscarried.

Despite the ruling, Ireland's abortion ban was never revised to incorporate the court-mandated exception, leaving a legal limbo.

So in 2010, the ECHR, part of the 47-country Council of Europe (as opposed to the EU), ruled that Irish law was unclear on whether abortion is legal if a woman's life is threatened by pregnancy. It also ruled that Ireland must clarify this in line with the amendment in its own Constitution outlawing abortion.

Now, three months later than expected, the "expert group" looks set to announce its findings and make a recommendation on how Ireland should amend its laws – and the war of words is well under way, dividing Ireland along religious and secular lines.

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.

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.

"It's a fact, regardless of how the abortion industry tries to rubbish it, that abortion has an effect on women," says Ms. Nic Mhathuna. "Effects ranging from guilt, to depression, suicidal tendencies [to] drink and drug abuse."

Anti-abortion activists also point to Ireland's maternal health record, which they say is among the best in the world, to argue that abortion is rarely necessary.

However, Aoife Dermody of pro-choice campaign Action on X, says the shift makes a wedge issue of abortion.

"They have adopted the political language of the left. It's not to say they don't care for women, but when you pull the argument apart the evidence isn't there."

Ms. Dermody says opponents fundamentally remain opposed to abortion on conservative and religious grounds.

Dim prospects for legislation

Ireland's coalition government, composed of the center-right Fine Gael party and center-left Labor, faces a tough time agreeing to implement any abortion legislation and the stage is set for a battle.

Independent socialist lawmaker Clare Daly, whose private members' bill on legislating for abortion was rejected by the Dáil, Ireland's lower house of parliament, on April 19, welcomes the challenge.

"I think things [in Ireland] have changed," she says. "We wanted to positively put forward at least the most limited case for legislation, rather than just just working reactively all the time."

Pro-life advocates are equally bullish.

"The ECHR judgment is nonbinding, [and] it was welcomed by pro-life groups in Europe because it didn't find a right to abortion as a human right. It said 'make your legal situation clear,'" says David Quinn of the Iona Institute, an interdenominational religious think tank.

"I do think the majority of [centrist party] Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians would go against abortion-on-demand, " says Youth Defence's Nic Mhathuna.

One option the expert proup may propose is that Ireland go to the polls on the matter.

"We'd support a referendum if it was clearly worded. Something as fundamental as this has to be decided by the people," says Nic Mhathuna.

Albeit to a limited degree, on this both sides agree. "You can see how divisive it still is at the moment. If, as a politician, your raison d'être is to keep your seat you can see why they'd want to avoid the issue," says Action on X's Aoife Dermody.

But, she says, "What the polls consistently show is that there is majority support for abortion in circumstances more liberal than the X case. We can complain about the government, but we have to take responsibility as an electorate."

But trainee attorney and feminist activist Wendy Lyon sounds a note of caution that, even if legislation is enacted, that's no guarantee of change. "All you have to do is look at the situation in Poland, where the law is very similar to the [British] 1967 Act, and yet it is much harder [there] to access abortion than in the UK."

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