Ireland’s abortion law in breach of international human rights
Thirty-two year old Jane* walks through a blue door into a house in a quiet street in residential Manchester.
The mother of three from Ireland never imagined she would find herself in these circumstances.
Jane was one of eight Irish women to visit the Marie Stopes International Manchester clinic yesterday. They were all there for the same reason – to have an abortion.
This clinic is one of the busiest in the country for treating women from Ireland. About 4500 Irish women each year are forced to leave their home country and travel to England to gain access to a basic fundamental health services provided to women across Europe.
“I have no choice, I’ve have three children already and we can’t afford another child,” Jane* said. Jane is accompanied by her husband. He has just started a new job after being made redundant.
Sarah*, aged 23, has arrived with her best friend and her sister. They left home at 5am and after two flights and surgery she will return home after 9pm that night.
“It is a very hard day today, to go through something like this away from my home is very difficult.”
Mary*, a 20 year old student, is juggling study, work and caring for her mother. She now faces financial hardship after paying €800 for travel and medical costs.
“I look after my mother and had to find someone to look after her today and it has been difficult to sort out the finances to pay for this trip.”
“It’s a disgrace that I can’t be seen in Ireland, the stress of the journey has been very hard and something women should not have to endure,” 20 year old mother, Joanna said.
On 16 December the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Irish Government had breached international human rights by failing to provide abortion services to a woman whose life was put at risk by continuing with the pregnancy.
Tracey McNeill Vice President and Director of UK and Western Europe at Marie Stopes International welcomed the important ruling and called on the Irish Government to change its abortion law.
“This is an important first step to ensuring that women have access to safe abortion services in Ireland. The Irish Government needs to begin the process to change the law. We would like to see them go beyond the court’s ruling and extend access to abortion services for all Irish women. Irish women should have the same fundamental rights to choose to have an abortion under whatever circumstances – a choice other women in Europe have. Marie Stopes International will continue helping Irish women and is keen to work with stakeholders to assist in the amendment of Ireland’s law.”
The Irish Courts have found that abortion is legal in Ireland only if the woman’s life is at risk. But the European Court judges suggested that the lack of clarity of the Irish Government’s abortion law was a “significant chilling factor for women and doctors as they both ran a risk of a serious criminal conviction and imprisonment if an initial doctor’s opinion… was later found to be against the Irish Constitution.”
The European Court ruling opens up the possibility of Ireland revisiting its abortion laws and compels the Irish Government to implement changes so that women whose lives are threatened by continuing a pregnancy will be able to legally access abortion in Ireland. This is a welcome step, however Marie Stopes International believes the judgement does not go far enough. As part of its review of abortion law, Marie Stopes International would like to see Irish law changed to allow women who need an abortion, but whose lives are not at risk, to be able to access abortion healthcare in her home country.
Abortion became a criminal offence in 1861 and that law still stands today. A constitutional amendment in 1983 also provided a right to life of an unborn child.
A referendum to change the law in 2002 narrowly failed but since then support for abortion is growing. A survey of 1000 Irish people late last year by Reproductive Choices found strong support for abortion services. Only 3% of people opposed abortion under all circumstances. More than 75% of respondents through abortion should be a choice if a woman’s health was at risk or conception had been a result of a sexual assault. Almost two thirds (62%) supported abortion if there was evidence of a profound foetal abnormality. Two in four people agreed that abortion should be permitted if the woman believes it is in her or her family's best interest. Just 35% disagreed with that statement.
“Catholic countries including Spain and Portugal have in the past three years changed their abortion laws to provide the choice for women in those countries and we have seen growing public support for abortion services in Ireland. This is about women having the choice whether or not they wish to have an abortion and if they need that healthcare service – to access it in their home country,” McNeill said.
“The number one question women ask, is ‘why can’t I have an abortion in my home country?’ Many women say they hadn’t given abortion rights much thought until they found themselves in that situation and just assumed they would be able to get the care they needed in their home country.”
For Mary and many of the other Irish women at the Manchester clinic yesterday, it was clear to them that change was needed.
“It will be very wrong if they don’t change the law. It would be the wrong choice and would not take women’s needs or their financial position into account. We are facing redundancies, none of our jobs are secure and having to travel abroad for healthcare is adding to this financial pressure,” Mary said. “I hope this legal case will lead to a change in the law. Women should have treatment in Ireland.”
*Not her real name.