Morning Star Article – July 2016

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” Article 40.3.3 (8th Amendment), Bunreacht na hEireann (Irish Constitution)

The UN Human Rights Committee recently ruled that Ireland’s treatment of Amanda Mellet, denied a termination after learning her foetus had congenital defects, was “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

Behind every statement on our abortion regime and every case of women suffering because of it, lies the 8th Amendment. Its 43 words approved by referendum in 1983 equate the life of a woman with that of a foetus and commit the state to defending that right “as far as practicable”.

Until it is revoked, abortion is outlawed in Ireland unless a woman’s life, as distinct from her health, is at risk, including by suicide. Fatal foetal anomaly (FFA), rape and incest? They don’t come into it.

Between 1980 and 2014, at least 163,514 women registered for terminations abroad; many others gave no personal details.

Now the UN has called on Ireland to “amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy, including if necessary its Constitution, to ensure compliance with the Covenant, including effective, timely and accessible procedures for pregnancy termination in Ireland”.

In protecting the foetus, it says the State discriminates against women, denying them access to health services in a way that men are not.

But with 180 days to respond, the government is showing little urgency: Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald says the judgment will be taken seriously but doesn’t elaborate. Health Minister Simon Harris finds our abortion regime “utterly unacceptable”. Taoiseach Enda Kenny says the UN ruling isn’t binding. Instead, the question of a referendum to repeal the 8th will be the first item on the agenda of a citizens’ assembly to be set up this autumn. Similar committees have taken years to report. Some of us think this is its point.

Independent TDs are preparing to table various Bills to widen access to abortion. The first on FFA is from Mick Wallace who along with colleagues Clare Daly and Joan Collins put the first ever abortion Bill to the Dáil in 2013. His attempt is deemed unconstitutional by Attorney General Máire Whelan. At time of writing it was still being discussed.

While all this is going on, each day another nine women travel for medical treatment they should be able to get here. The cost can be prohibitive – up to 3,000 euros meaning young, low income and migrant women are worst affected.

As for definitions of the “unborn” as expressed in the 8th, current legislation defines it as existing from implantation in the uterus until “complete emergence … from the body of the woman”. Identifying the uterus sidesteps criminalising emergency contraception or treatment of ectopic pregnancy. When it comes to legal rights, we know that the Supreme Court has clarified they do not apply pre implantation (Roche v Roche 2015). The foetus has had legal representation in Irish courts.

The names and addresses of abortion clinics, as Amanda Mellet and so many others can attest, isn’t straightforward. Medical staff experience the chilling effect of the Abortion Information Act 1995 which leaves them uncertain on how to advise a woman with a crisis pregnancy without getting into trouble.

Unsurprisingly, use of abortion pills has risen even though the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, 2013 (PLDPA) means anyone procuring or helping to procure a termination faces up to 14 years in prison.

Repeal movement

A recent Amnesty International survey shows attitudes in Ireland have changed since 1983: 87% want more access to abortion; 73% want a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and almost 70% believe this should be a priority for government.

The Trade Union Campaign to Repeal 8 is a group of activists who believe that without access to reproductive rights, women are denied full social, economic, political and workplace equality. Legal restrictions on abortion and lack of access to safe procedures deny them medical treatment only they need. We fear a citizens’ assembly could lead to an equally unworkable amendment and we’ve called on the government to call a referendum without delay.

As part of a repeal coalition with up to 60 members including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, National Women’s Council of Ireland and Amnesty International, we’re working to bring the trade union movement on board. While the Irish Congress of Trades Unions supports us, not all its members do. In Britain, the TUC and train drivers’ union ASLEF have signed up. More solidarity like this is welcome.

Finally, author and signatory to the Artists for Repeal of the 8th Anne Enright has described the debate that started over 30 years ago thus: “… the constitutional row about abortion was a moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes… with unfathomable bitterness. The country was screaming at itself about contraception, abortion, divorce. It was a hugely misogynistic time.”

Clearly, that row is not over and while it rages, grotesque abuses of pregnant women continue to attract global attention.

In 1992 Miss X, a pregnant 14-year-old rape victim became suicidal when she realised she couldn’t have an abortion. She and her family were injuncted by the State and had to return from the UK where they had sought a termination. A Supreme Court ruling later stated the abortion ban did not apply when a woman’s life was at risk, including through suicide. Note life, not health.

Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis in Galway University Hospital in 2012 after being refused an abortion – “We don’t do that sort of thing here, dear”. Instead, we have is the right to travel abroad to get one privately and at your own expense.

In 2014, another woman, pregnant but clinically dead from cancer was kept alive because the foetus had a heartbeat. The family went to court to be allowed to turn off life support.

The same year, a migrant woman raped in her country of origin found she was pregnant in Ireland. She wanted an abortion. Instead, at 24-26 weeks she was forcibly hydrated on foot of a High Court order and the baby she did not want was delivered by Caesarean section.

Amanda Mellet who left England bleeding and in pain because she couldn’t afford to stay, later received the ashes of her dead baby in the post. “Isobel” left the clinic with her baby’s body in a cardboard box.

Amanda Mellet was “profoundly grateful” to the UN for acknowledging that her human rights were violated. We are profoundly grateful to her, and to all the women who have had to resort to the courts or the UN or the European Court of Justice to highlight their mistreatment. Their actions have strengthened the repeal movement in Ireland – and the UN ruling itself will help women worldwide living with restricted reproductive choices.

Article 40.3.3 is inoperable, its effects cruel and discriminatory. It simply has to go.

We are supported by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Unite, Mandate, the Communications Workers Union, the youth committees of ICTU, Unite and the CWU, the Dublin, Bray & District and Waterford trades councils, the TUC and ASLEF. 


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