On Irish Abortion Legislation and ‘Lapgate’

Last night, after a 21 year long wait, X-case legislation was passed in the Dáil at 127 to 31. However, it’s not law yet – it still has to go through the Seanad and the President’s office. While this is a momentous occasion in Irish history, and a step in the right direction for women*’s reproductive freedom, it is not without its issues.
 
The legislation brings clarity to doctors – a pregnant person can now undergo any treatment to save their life, even if that treatment will result in a miscarriage or involves ending the pregnancy. It takes one doctor to decide if the woman* is literally at death’s door, and two if she’s only a little bit dying. However, to force a woman* who is suicidal as a result of her pregnancy to plead for her life in front of a panel of doctors (one of which has to be an OB despite the fact that it’s a mental health issue, not a pre-natal issue) is cruel. If they do not unanimously agree, she must go to another panel, and they could take 5 to 7 days to come to a decision. They could take a week to decide whether or not to help, when a person contemplates suicide waiting for their verdict.
 
Mental health is real health, and this is something the legislators seem to not fully understand. If someone has gotten to the point where they would subject themselves to this kind of backwards and patronising system because their pregnancy is not something they can handle, they need help. They don’t need to be submitted to this trial where they are not even certain that the outcome will be to save their life and end the pregnancy. This legislation will do nothing for people who are suicidal as a result of their pregnancies. However, some women* may go through this panel. These are the women* who are too poor to travel for a termination and migrant women* who are unsure of their immigration status. These are some of our most vulnerable women, yet we will subject them to this cruel, humiliating process to beg for their lives.
 
The legislation also contains a jail sentence for those who terminate in Ireland, or those who help them terminate in Ireland. Under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, which made abortion completely illegal in Ireland, this crime warrants life of penal servitude. In the new legislation this has become an undisclosed fine and up to 14 years imprisonment. No one has ever been prosecuted for self-inducing in Ireland under the old legislation, and we have been assured that this will continue with the new legislation. Why then, was it included at all? Why even make the threat to criminalise women who self-induce with pills in their own country? Why add to the stigma surrounding abortion? While this threat may only apply to doctors who perform abortions ‘illegally’ (i.e. when the pregnant person is not actually dying), there is a worry that it could also be used to prosecute those who provide abortifants, or collect them from the North, as they are supplying the means to carry out an abortion. Whether anyone is ever prosecuted for self-inducing, only time will tell.

This is the bare minimum. This basically tells Irish women* – ‘if you’re pregnant, and will die if you remain pregnant, we’ll end your pregnancy’. It isn’t bringing in abortion on request, and it also isn’t abortion up to 9 months. After the point of viability, if the pregnancy needs to be ended to save the life of the pregnant person, a c-section or early induced delivery will be performed, not an abortion. While that seems painfully obvious, the anti-choice crowd have been using that as a means by which to ‘kill the bill’. They would rather women* die than have a termination. That’s not ‘pro-life’.
 
Various amendments to the bill were proposed while it was being debated in the Dáil over the last few days. All amendments to broaden the bill were defeated. Terminations in cases of rape or incest were defeated because they don’t fit into the tiny box that is the Supreme Court interpretation of the law – that terminations are only allowed when there is a real and substantial risk to the woman*’s life, including through suicide. Interestingly enough, though not surprising, amendments trying to remove the suicide claus from the bill were also tabled. One has to wonder how the government could legislate for X (as we are required to do by the European Court of Human Rights), if we leave out suicide. The X-case is the reason the interpretation included suicide as a real and substantial risk to the woman*’s life. We have two referenda (1992 and 2002) where the people could have opted to remove ‘in case of suicide’ from the law; we chose not to.
 
Terminations for medical reasons, when the fetus has a fatal abnormality and will not survive outside the womb, were also left out, despite the argument that the fetus will never live outside the womb, and so their right to life cannot be seen as the same as the right to life of the pregnant person. These are generally much wanted pregnancies, and yet we export these grieving families to the UK and elsewhere if they chose to end the pregnancy.
 
The defeated amendment which baffled me the most was to allow for terminations during an inevitable miscarriage. Currently in Ireland, if you miscarry, you’re told we can’t help you, just go home and wait. Depending how far along the pregnancy is, this waiting could take three or four days. This was the only amendment which could have saved Savita Halapanavar had this legislation been in place a year ago. In countries where abortion legislation is broader, you can chose to end the miscarriage via a D&C. This results in the cervix being open for a considerably shorter amount of time, thus reducing the risk of infection, and can also reduce the mental anguish of the person miscarrying.
 
One distinction that anti-choicers repeatedly used was the misinformed idea that abortions are different from necessary medical interventions which end a pregnancy. Soz, nope. In cases of ectopic pregnancies, the zygote is pretty much directly targeted and removed. Obviously, if an ectopic pregnancy is left untreated for long enough, the damage to the fallopian tube can be so great that it must be removed. This is often done in very Catholic hospitals – patients must wait until their tube is so damaged before they can receive treatment, because then you can say that it’s not really abortion. This misguided argument has also been used when discussing this bill, despite the fact that the word ‘abortion’ isn’t used once, it’s always called a medical procedure or medical intervention. Sarah Malone deals amazingly with both these points in a recent interview (also note how it’s two middle aged, British men arguing against a young, Irish woman about abortion in Ireland…)
 
It was not only the legislation which caused controversy over the lst few days at the Dáil. During the first sitting, which went on til 5am, Tom Barry TD pulled Áine Collins onto his lap and held her there while she was clearly uncomfortable, only releasing her after a pat on her very lower back. A number of male TDs around them are seemingly unbothered by this behaviour. During a debate about women’s reproductive rights, a female TD is sexually harassed. Because what happened was sexual harassment. Collins later accepted Barry’s apology, but that doesn’t mean it was OK. It shows the way in which the Dáil is still very much set in a Mad Men era. Excuses have been made, ranging from the fact that the heating wasn’t on (it was a 27 degree day), the few drinks he’d had (why our politicians are allowed drink while debating life and death legislation is for another day) or simply that it was ‘silly’ and a bit of ‘horseplay’.
We haven’t exactly come a long way in the last 21 years regarding abortion legislation in Ireland. This legislation is not yet law, and odds are it will face many more hurdles set up by the anti-choicers and misogynist politicians, but I’m confident that it will pass, and Ireland will be a slightly safer country for pregnant women*.
 
But it’s important not to get complacent. We shouldn’t wait another 21 years, or for another tragic death, before we get the 8thAmendment repealed. We need a referendum to remove this out-dated, religious-based, misogynist article from our constitution. Then, we can make real progress with reproductive rights in Ireland. 
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3 thoughts on “On Irish Abortion Legislation and ‘Lapgate’

  1. Nick, I think due to the fact that you don't see Ireland as the last 'beacon of hope' when it comes to restricting women*'s reproductive rights means you're one of the lovely ones who we like :)

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