Ireland: a “quiet revolution” and a loud demand for social progress

, by Madelaine Pitt

Ireland: a “quiet revolution” and a loud demand for social progress
Thoughts on abortion written on post-it stickers ahead of the Irish abortion referendum on 25 May. Photograph: George Hodan // Public Domain Pictures (CC0)

Crowds, tears, hugging. Emotions flying as high as the green, white and orange flags. Redefining Irish identity.

No, it’s not about the Irish football team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, but about their country’s decision to repeal the (in)famous Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution – and therefore legalise terminations of pregnancies in a country with some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world.

For pro-choice campaigners fearing a wavering Brexit-style split, the result was emphatic; there were roughly twice as many ‘Yes’ votes to legalise abortion than to maintain the status quo (66.4% to 33.6%). Better still, and again in contrast to the awful divisions between demographic groups both highlighted and created by Britain’s EU membership referendum, a breakdown of the vote shows a heartening unity across ages, regions and even, relatively speaking, political party affiliation and genders.

In a referendum which attracted an impressive turnout of 64.1%, all regions but Donegal, the northernmost and westernmost constituency gripping on to the controversy-bound Northern Irish border (the significance that arbitrary line on the earth has taken on in the past year is incredible), voted ‘Yes’. Equally, all age categories except (wait for it) the over 65s voted for the change. [1]

The legal stuff

In a country where even the usual suspects of rape, incest and foetal abnormality have not up to now been enough to justify a termination, this is indeed the “quiet revolution” captioned by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. With the overhaul of the law planned by Health Minister Simon Harris by the end of the year, abortion will continue until that point to be legal only if the woman’s life is seriously in danger.

What is the legislative basis for this situation which the UN has on occasion described as a “violation of human rights”? We have to trek back to 1861 to the Offences Against the Person Act (passed long before the Republic of Ireland’s independence from the UK in 1922) which outlaws any attempt to “procure a miscarriage”. This Act, incredibly, is still in force in both Great Britain and the Emerald Isle.

England, Scotland and Wales

With abortions for the purpose of saving the life of the mother allowed from 1929, it took the Abortion Act of 1967 to bring real change, providing an exemption for doctors to perform abortions in England, Scotland and Wales if certain conditions are met.

Essentially, abortion in these countries has been legalised but not decriminalised; this is surely a factor in the negative way we as a society still perceive the process today. Legal it may be, but the “OK well if it’s absolutely necessary” tone of the framework legitimises others’ judgement and frowns upon choice. Patronisingly insisting that two doctors must agree and that some aspect of the woman’s well-being must be at stake, the letter of the law might have more respect for women’s health than the Irish laws, but not a lot more for her right to choose – even in Great Britain, it is high time to remove the dust from the 51-year-old legislation.

Over the Irish Sea: the Republic…

In 1983, powerful lobbies succeeded in bringing about a referendum to harden, not soften, the 1861 Act, essentially making the rights of an unborn child equal to those of its mother.

And this is the amendment repealed by the vote on 25th May 2018. With the more detailed brushstrokes of regulation governing abortions yet to fill in the emerging outline, it is likely that abortions will be legal up for up to 12 weeks in the gestation period.

...and the North?

This overthrow has created bedlam in Westminster, with pressure screaming skywards on Northern Ireland to change its own laws, and on Theresa May to make this happen. Unfortunately, the fact that her government is being propped up by Northern Irish coalition partners the Democratic Unionist Party, whose official stance is pro-life (though let’s please call them anti-choice), makes her unlikely to rock the boat, with waters already choppy. Desperate for their support over Brexit, May probably considers that she has bigger fish to fry.

Where is the EU in all of this?

In 2010, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights had a tough decision to make on a three-pronged attack on the Irish government by three women, each having travelled to the UK to undergo an abortion. The courts ruled that, while Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights confers the right to a “private and family life, his home and his correspondence”, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”, this is not tantamount to guaranteeing the right to abortion. The only significant ruling was that Ireland had failed to provide clarity on how to obtain a legally binding decision on one of the women’s right to terminate her pregnancy, which she believed to be life-threatening.

The EU has not historically wished to be seen to be meddling in such a delicate issue capable of causing political tremours through Europe’s most Catholic and conservative nations. Yet what happens when we leave the decision up to individual countries?

Take the tragic story of Salvita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist living in Ireland, who died in 2012 as a direct result of being denied an abortion following complications of a miscarriage. Take Poland in 2016, where tens of thousands clothed in black poured on to streets to protest against a bill which proposed to ban abortion in all but the most extreme circumstances. Take Poland now, where Warsaw and other cities are again seeing mass protests unfurling to demand that a milder version of a similar bill (softened words, identical ideology) be scrapped. Take Malta, where there is a complete ban. Take Gibraltar, where the process is punishable by life imprisonment. Take Hungary, where “pro-family” policies clearly aim to lower the number of abortions; in Vienna, certain abortion clinics now employ Hungarian translators.

The European Union, whilst making protesting noises, is yet to take action. The EU might see itself as a champion of human rights, but the lack of European legislation on this topic and the reluctance of the institutions to tackle this issue head on is a sad reflection of how even in 2018 we do not always recognise women’s rights issues as human rights issues.

History has shown that in times of national identity crisis, women suffer more as countries seek to re-establish “family values”, a safe-sounding term often hiding a backtrack in social progress. The right to a safe abortion without judgement needs to be enshrined in European law in order to protect women from being the first targets of a country under pressure. Tightening abortion laws is too often an attempt to preserve an existing social order in which following a law has priority over a woman’s choice.

It takes a strange mentality to deliberately withhold a safe, effective procedure of 21st century medicine which gives a woman the possibility, whether or not her well-being is at risk, of walking away from an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy as a man can. Not as easily or as simply. But the possibility is there, and with it, a fundamental step towards greater equality between men and women.

The result marks an opening of a new chapter of a progressive, compassionate future, turning the page towards an Ireland in which the Church and lobbies do not speak for the people. The EU should carefully consider what role it is to play in the next scene.

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