close
History organization

Ireland has changed its anti-abortion laws. Can he come up with a plan for the United States?

Placeholder while loading article actions

Ireland’s 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion was hailed as a victory by abortion rights activists and seen as a beacon of hope in the United States after the overthrow of Roe vs. Wade. The result was a remarkable turnaround for Ireland, a deeply Catholic country that criminalized abortion in 1861 and then added the law to its constitution in 1983.

Much of the impetus for the 2018 referendum is attributed to Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis in a Galway hospital during a miscarriage of her foetus. Although they knew that her life was increasingly in danger and that the fetus would not survive, the doctors refused to perform an abortion as long as the fetus had a heartbeat. By the time the heartbeat stopped a few days later, Halappanavar’s organs had begun to shut down and she died shortly thereafter.

Halappanavar’s tragic and unnecessary death was certainly a catalyst for the referendum, but it was by no means the only one. Ireland has had a long and complicated history with access to abortion, ranging from a total ban, to a (poor) balance between the life of the fetus and that of the woman, to – like the referendum of 2018 made it possible – full acceptance of abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

This story is instructive for the United States as it grapples with the legal implications of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In Ireland, three issues caused the most confusion and conflict in the years leading up to the 2018 vote: traveling for abortions, providing information about abortion options and determining when the life of a woman is sufficiently threatened to allow an abortion. Ireland’s history also shows how individual cases, some shocking, have exposed the shortcomings of the law and paved the way for its evolution.

Historically, Ireland’s position on abortion has been extremely harsh. Abortion was criminalized in Ireland in 1861 with the Offenses Against the Person Act and reconfirmed when Ireland gained independence and adopted its 1937 Constitution. When the UK decriminalized abortion in 1967, a large number of Irish women began to travel to the UK for the procedure.

In 1983, in response to pressure from religious organizations and fears that an Irish court would issue a decision similar to that of the United States Supreme Court in 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, Ireland passed a referendum which enshrined the “right to life of the unborn child… with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”. This law appears to place the life of an unborn fetus and that of a woman on an equal footing, meaning that a fetus must be protected unless the woman’s life is in danger. But in reality, the life of the fetus took precedence, leading to the death of women who were denied medical treatment that could harm the fetus.

A 1988 case against a group of clinics that offered abortion advice made it illegal for anyone to advise or assist a woman who wanted to travel abroad for an abortion. Some women have circumvented these restrictions by traveling to the UK on “shopping trips”, while others without the means or ability to travel have died after being forced to carry a foetus.

With the Irish courts’ anti-abortion stance seemingly frozen, Irish women began to approach the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice in an attempt to convince them to demand that the Irish courts change their position. As a member of the Council of Europe and the European Union, Ireland is bound by treaty to follow the decisions of these European courts. So in the early 1990s, when European courts issued rulings requiring Ireland to allow people to provide information about abortion or how to travel abroad to get one, the law changed accordingly.

Yet many women were unable to use this information due to age or finances. Two Irish court decisions in the 1990s created an exception to the law prohibiting travel for an abortion in cases where the pregnant woman threatened to commit suicide. In these cases, they were teenage girls who were either wards of the state or did not have parental permission to travel, and the court in both cases granted them the ability to travel. These cases received high profile, leading to public pressure on the government to reconsider.

As a result, the public voted in three referendums, which changed the law to allow women to travel for an abortion and to receive information about such travel. The third referendum, which attempted to remove the risk of suicide as a reason for allowing abortion in Ireland, failed. In 2002, the government again let the public vote to remove the suicide exception, effectively removing the issue from the hands of the judiciary, and this referendum was not passed a second time.

Irish public opinion on abortion was clearly changing, and in 2003 a survey showed that just over half of Irish people believed that a woman should be able to have an abortion under any circumstances. In 2007, an Irish court allowed a minor to travel for an abortion not because she was suicidal, but because the fetus would not survive due to severe brain damage.

Despite court rulings and public opinion, there are still many cases where women are denied medical treatment because they are pregnant. The case of Savita Halappanavar is simply the one that has received the most media attention. Following her case and a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling, Ireland passed the Pregnancy Life Protection Act (PLDPA) in 2013, which listed 25 hospitals public places where women could have abortions if their lives were in danger. including suicide. However, the guidance document for this act created several restrictions, such as requiring two medical specialists to certify that the woman’s life was in danger.

The PLDPA also failed to address cases where the fetus would not survive. At this point, the United Nations Human Rights Committee got involved and concluded in 2016, and then again in 2018, that Ireland violated a woman’s right to privacy by not giving her information on how to obtain an abortion after learning that her fetus had died fatally. birth defect.

Finally, after so many lost court cases, public disapproval, reports of over 170,000 women traveling to the UK for abortions, sustained activism and declining church influence catholic after child abuse scandals in the 1990s, the Irish government finally decided to act in 2016. It created a Citizens’ Assembly made up of 99 randomly selected people and reflecting the Irish population in terms of demographics such as age, gender, geography and diversity of beliefs about abortion.

After meeting several times over five months and hearing from medical, legal and ethical experts, the assembly issued a report recommending that abortion be legal in Ireland up to 12 weeks, or at any time during the pregnancy if certain conditions are met, such as a threat to the life of the woman or the fetus. Following this report, the Irish government debated the issue and eventually organized the referendum which was passed in 2018.

Ireland’s story offers hope that the United States might find a way to legalize abortion, but it also shows how a government can obstruct changes that have strong public support by passing unpopular legislation and blocking any attempt at judicial reform. Ireland’s history shows how many setbacks abortion rights activists are likely to face in the post-Dobbs United States, and how women’s lives will be weighed down and even sacrificed along the way. There are no quick fixes, only painful lessons to learn. But only learning these lessons will undo the Dobbs decision and give American women the right to choose an abortion.

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.