Twenty-eight years ago, in 1989 I was taken to court by a group called SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child). I was President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union, and SPUC had threatened me and the other three Trinity officers with prison because we were fulfilling union policy by providing information on abortion to women with crisis pregnancies. The courts had ruled that it was illegal for anyone in Ireland to give out the names, addresses and phone numbers of abortion clinics in England – because of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Pregnancy counselling services had been closed down, and the only places publicly providing abortion information for desperate women all over Ireland were a small number of students’ unions.
Clever legal argument by our senior counsel, Mary Robinson, kept us out of prison at the time. But ever since then, the Eighth Amendment has continued to cast a blight over my generation of women, too young to have voted in 1983, but whose daughters are now growing up under its chill.
By equating the lives of ‘the mother’ and ‘the unborn’, this Amendment portrays women merely as vessels. It has not prevented one crisis pregnancy. But it has compounded the crisis of many pregnancies, particularly when the journey to seek abortion abroad is particularly difficult: for young women, women in poverty, asylum seekers. And, above all, it has endangered women’s lives by having a chilling effect on obstetrics in Ireland, making doctors afraid to intervene to save a pregnant woman’s life until she is close to death.
Calls for repeal have become increasingly strong in recent years, particularly since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, and the prolonging of life support for a pregnant young woman, against her family’s wishes, in a midlands hospital in December 2014. But the Amendment remains in place.
Because of the Amendment, the long-awaited legislation passed in 2013 to implement the X case and allow for abortion on grounds of physical risk to life, or risk of suicide, could provide for abortion only where a woman’s life was at risk. As members of the Oireachtas, we could not legislate for any other ground. Because of the Eighth Amendment, we could not legislate to allow abortion in cases of rape, nor where a pregnancy poses a serious risk to a woman’s health; nor even in cases where a baby is incapable of being born alive.
The legislation we passed that year has so far led to the carrying out of 52 terminations of pregnancy in Ireland to save women’s lives – vitally important for those women and their families, but clearly not meeting the real reproductive health needs of many other women. We know that thousands of Irish women continue to travel to England to terminate their pregnancies every year. In 2015 alone, 3,451 did so – 63 every week, nine every day. Since 1983, more than 160,000 women have made this journey.
For all these reasons, the Amendment must be repealed. And the repeal movement is growing. In recent months we have seen the brilliant, highly visible, Repeal tops being worn everywhere. We have seen more and more groups forming to call for repeal, and joining the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. We have seen the powerful video, Chains, made last year for Amnesty by Graham and Helen Linehan, based on their experience of fatal foetal abnormality.
For all these reasons, repeal of the Amendment has been Labour Party policy for many years. In 2014, Labour Women established a commission, chaired by former Senator Dr Mary Henry, to put forward a practical strategy to achieve repeal. We consulted with independent doctors and lawyers, including Dr. Peter Boylan and psychiatrist Professor Veronica O’Keeffe. In November 2015, we published the Bill that Labour would introduce if the referendum for repeal was passed. This legislation, the Repeal the Eighth Amendment Bill 2015, represents a significant step forward: no other major political party has nailed its colours to the mast on the issue of abortion in this way.
Its publication is very important, because we know from the divorce referendums of 1986 and 1995, and from the 2015 marriage equality referendum campaign that, for a referendum to be passed, its effects must be clearly spelled out in advance – people need to know what they are voting for. If we want to see the entire Eighth Amendment repealed, and for abortion to be regulated through compassionate and sensitive legislation, in line with other European countries, we need to show voters what that legislation would look like.
The framework legislation we have prepared represents this model. It would allow abortion on four medically certified grounds: risk to life; risk to health; rape; and fatal foetal abnormality. It would repeal existing laws that criminalise women and their doctors; and it would provide protection for those offering and accessing legal abortion services. This is sensible and moderate legislation, relatively conservative by European standards. Indeed, many of us might prefer to see a more radical abortion law in place, but we recognise that the Bill we have prepared more closely reflects the current views of Irish people on abortion, as measured in successive opinion polls.
Labour is the party of social change: we have long taken liberal stances on social issues such as contraception and divorce. In line with this tradition, it was Labour that pushed for the successful referendum on divorce in 1995; the recent gender quota legislation was Labour policy; and it was Labour that brought about the holding of the marriage equality referendum under the last government. In all these cases we achieved change. But change cannot be achieved without a clear and practical strategy.
Our strategy was to declare our position by publishing a Bill, so voters would know where we stand on the issue of abortion. We also made this position clear in our Labour submission to the Citizens’ Assembly last year. We are hopeful that the Assembly, currently ongoing, will deliver a clear recommendation that the government should call a referendum on repeal of the Eighth Amendment for later this year. We will continue to campaign alongside other progressive voices and movements in Ireland for that to happen.
There is now a groundswell of public support for a referendum on repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Let’s achieve repeal and end the chill – for the sake of our daughters and their generation.