New law fails – struggle needed for abortion rights

In a recent Irish Times poll 75% of voters have voiced their support for the government’s new legislation on abortion. However, this legislation is extremely limited and falls far short of what is needed and what there is a demand for in society.

The new bill only provides a legal right to an abortion where a woman’s life, as opposed to her health is at risk. This counterposing of a woman’s life to her health is disgusting, backwards and must be challenged. Similarly women pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or women carrying unviable pregnancies for instance will still have to travel abroad at their own expense.

The same poll showed that an overwhelming majority of voters support the right to an abortion in these specific circumstances. Rather then adhering to the wishes of the public, however, this government has chosen to pander to the most reactionary, conservative and unrepresentative elements within its own ranks.

Campaigners for women’s rights will have difficulty in supporting this legislation. For instance, under the new legislation a woman who terminates her own pregnancy is guilty of an offense and is liable to spend up to 14 years in prison. Ireland will still have laws on abortion more restrictive then countries such as India, Pakistan, Cameroon and Ethiopia – in fact much of the world.

Will this legislation if it is passed in its current format with the definition of the “unborn” included be subsequently used to try to restrict the use of emergency contraception – the morning after pill? Could is even be used to prosecute a woman who uses emergency contraception?

The main reason that the Irish establishment has gotten away with maintaining such a draconian abortion regime has been the accessibility of abortion services in Britain.

Since 1980 about 150,000 women have given Irish addresses at British clinics. This safety valve has ensured that successive governments have not been forced to act by the tragedy of deaths from backstreet abortions.

Nonetheless, Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws continue to put women at risk because not everyone can go abroad. Examples include migrant women who have restrictions on their travel, women in abusive relationships, sick women like Savita Halappanavar and poor women who simply cannot afford to go. In the context of worsening austerity this last group is quickly growing. The result of this is that more illegal abortions are taking place domestically. In 2009 alone, 1,216 packs of abortion pills were seized by customs. The research into abortion in Ireland confirms international trends: making abortion illegal does not stop it; it just makes it more dangerous.

While the latest poll shows that unfortunately the majority of voters do not support abortion on request, a strong minority (39%) does. Among younger people, support is much stronger. Clearly there is a basis and a need for a new broad, open and democratic campaign, which would aim to activate a whole new generation on the issue. A struggle needs to be built and waged for the scrapping of the 8th amendment. Hopefully the next advancement in women’s reproductive rights will be off the back of such a struggle rather then being brought about by another needless tragedy, as has historically been the case.