Ireland has voted to allow abortion, under certain conditions. The decision follows the death of a pregnant woman last year. DW spoke with Sinead Ahern of Choice Ireland about whether the law could have gone further.
Irish lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Friday (12.07.13) to legalize abortions in cases where doctors deem the woman's life at risk from her pregnancy. Sinead Ahern, spokesperson for Choice Ireland which campaigns for a women's right to abortion, told DW what this law means for women in Ireland today.
DW: Can you describe what was going on in the lead-up to the decision to pass this law?
Sinead Ahern: This campaign has actually been going on for 22 years. It all started in 1992 when a 14-year-old girl was pregnant as a result of rape. She and her parents travelled to London to terminate her pregnancy, because she told her parents that she would rather end her own life than continue with her pregnancy. But the Irish state, because of our constitution which contains an amendment guaranteeing the life of the unborn, issued an injunction and forced the girl and her parents to come back to Ireland and barred them from leaving for a further nine months to ensure she didn't terminate her pregnancy.
This caused an uproar among the Irish people...thousands took to the streets. The decision was appealed and the Supreme Court ruled that if a woman's life is in danger, including from a threat to suicide, then she has the right to terminate her pregnancy. What we have been campaigning for ever since is to get that ruling written into law, because until now there have been no guidelines for doctors as to what "a threat to life" actually constitutes, and who makes that decision. Does it need to be just a 10 percent risk, a 40 percent risk, a 90 percent risk? How many doctors need to agree? So essentially, women haven't been able to access that right.
What really highlighted the debate was the case of Savita Halappanavar in November last year who was denied a termination, even though she was told she was miscarrying, because there was still a fetal heartbeat. She subsequently developed sepsis and died. I think an awful lot of Irish people were revolted at her needless death. So there has been a huge amount of public support, but there has also been an anti-choice campaign from a very vocal and well-funded minority. We've seen huge ad campaigns, pickets outside the homes of politicians who were going to vote for the bill, [with] pictures posted of late term aborted fetuses...[and] threats against them.
What about in the last couple of weeks?
The government finally published the legislation on the X case [the case of the 14-year-old girl] and began debating it, but amendments to the debate began on Wednesday morning and the atmosphere in Ireland was really quite fraught. I think the Irish government was really determined to pass this bill before their summer break, so parliament actually sat until 5 a.m. on Thursday to pass the legislation, all the while with vigils of protesters outside, sometimes chanting, sometimes in silence. It was quite intimidating at times. When I left after the final vote, people called me a "baby killer" and called me by my name, and that kind of treatment seems to have been experienced by many of the politicians who voted in favor of the bill.
And the Irish prime minister himself said he had received letters written in blood about this debate?
He did indeed. Many politicians received death threats. One TD [member of parliament] ended up leaving his home last weekend, because the demonstrations outside his house were [so intense].
As a pro-choice campaigner, were you pleased with the extent of the law, or do you wish it could have gone further?
Our government is very limited as to the extent of the law they could have passed. Our constitution is very clear that an abortion is only legal when there is a threat to a woman's life, including the threat of suicide. So, I think we knew that it couldn't have gone much further than it did. But one of the few things we would have liked to have seen changed was while the existing legislation reduces the potential criminal penalty for women who buy abortion pills over the Internet from life imprisonment to 14 years, that is still a significant penalty. And as it becomes more and more difficult for Irish women to afford to travel abroad and terminate their pregnancies, more and more women are ordering abortion pills over the Internet. With these criminal penalties, were they to require medical help, they may be deterred from seeking that help, which could have very adverse consequences for them.
The other issue we are quite concerned about is that in the case of threat of suicide, three doctors, instead of two, are required, and we feel that that could be far too onerous a process for a woman who is likely to be very vulnerable, given that she is pressing for a termination because she is suicidal. We feel that many women won't be able to access that right, and they will continue to do what they are doing now, which is travelling to London.
What does this law actually mean for women in Ireland today? If they have an unwanted pregnancy, what can they do?
In cases where there is a direct threat to these women's lives - an infection, a cardiac problem or any other problem or threat to their lives - for those women, their doctors now have a little bit more clarity as to whether they can intervene and whether they can terminate their pregnancies. It offers those doctors and the women a certain degree of comfort in knowing that they won't be prosecuted for acting in good faith and trying to save women's lives.
Today, though, new statistics were published in the UK which show that nearly 4,000 women having abortions in UK clinics gave Irish addresses, which means that nearly 11 Irish women a day are still travelling to the UK to have an abortion. These women are terminating pregnancies for a wide variety of reasons, and those women will continue to travel, and we're now calling on the Irish government to address that issue, to remove the eighth amendment from the constitution which bans abortion and to make sure that we can care for these women here in Ireland.
Will that be possible? Do you think you'll see an Ireland in the future that will remove that eighth amendment?
I think more and more Irish people are starting to see abortion as having real and quite brutal consequences for Irish women. With those women speaking out about the horrible brutality of that system, I think more and more Irish people will support the removal of the eighth amendment, and I think it will be a reality very soon.
Sinead Ahern is a spokesperson for Choice Ireland and has been campaigning for more choice for Irish women with regards to abortion rights.