Ireland is set to hold an abortion referendum on May 25. The devoutly Catholic country has some of the EU's strictest laws on the procedure. How is abortion currently regulated in Ireland?
Abortion has long been banned in Ireland. The "right to life of the unborn" was enshrined in the Irish Constitution when the Eighth Amendment was added after a referendum in 1983. The amendment acknowledges the embryo's right to life "with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother." A woman who has an abortion risks a prison sentence of up to 14 years.
What is the May 25 vote about?
The referendum is a vote on whether or not to scrap the Eighth Amendment. The polls put the "Yes" camp in the lead. If the ban is scrapped, the government plans to vote on a new law that was proposed by the Citizen's Assembly, a public body established to address moral and ethical issues in Ireland. This proposed legislation envisages the legalization of abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy. In exceptional cases, such as when the life of the mother is in danger or the fetus is malformed, a termination would be allowed up to the 22nd week of pregnancy.
What are the arguments of the 'Yes' camp, which wants to legalize abortion?
The "Yes" camp says that women should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies. Advocates argue that the Eighth Amendment does not prevent abortions, it merely encourages "abortion tourism." The human rights organization Amnesty International calls Ireland's abortion law "one of the world's most discriminatory and punitive" and says women and girls there "are routinely denied their human rights." The United Nations' human rights committee has found that Ireland's ban on abortion subjects women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and has called on the Irish government to revise it.
What do anti-abortionists say?
They warn against taking a too careless approach to pregnancy terminations, and stress the necessity of protecting unborn life. According to Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran, who chairs the Bioethics Commission of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, society must not accept "that one human being has the right to end the life of another." A joint statement from the Bishops' Conference said that even after rape or when the embryo is severely disabled, indeed "especially in those tragic cases, both the mother and her unborn child can — and must — be loved and cherished."
What if a woman became pregnant as the result of rape, or the fetus is nonviable?
Termination of the pregnancy is not allowed in either case, nor is it if the pregnancy is the result of incest. Women are, however, allowed to have abortions abroad. Figures from the UK Department of Health indicate that every year more than 3,000 Irishwomen travel abroad for a pregnancy termination. Between 1980 and 2016, more than 170,000 women did so. The majority of these abortions took place in England. Many women also have abortion pills sent to them illegally by post.
Are there any exceptions?
Since early 2014, abortions have been allowed if the life of the mother is in danger. According to the Irish Department of Health, 25 such interventions were made in 2016. The basis for this is the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which was passed by the Irish Parliament in 2013. The act also states that the life-threatening situations in which an abortion is permissible include the risk of the mother committing suicide.
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In October 2012, a 31-year-old Galway woman died after doctors refused to perform an abortion. Savita Halappanavar suffered an infection of the placenta in the 17th week of her pregnancy. Her doctors referred to the abortion laws, saying they were not allowed to intervene as long as the baby's heart was still beating. Halappanavar began to develop signs of sepsis but suffered a stillbirth before doctors could induce an abortion. She died a few days later. The case led to mass protests in Ireland against the abortion law and put the government under pressure to make changes to the legal situation.