Have we really Repealed the 8th?

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Two Years on from the Repeal the 8th vote, Sophie Linnane asks whether thevote has had any real lasting effects or was it purely symbolic?

It may have taken decades of grass root campaigns, two elections and a public condemnation from both the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the UN Committee Against Torture, but in May of 2018 the people of Ireland voted to repeal the 8 th Amendment. After years of struggle, that some had been involved in for decades, the women of Ireland were granted autonomy over their own bodies - we were finally given the right to choose. With one of the largest voter turnout rates in the history of the state, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to grant abortion rights to women. With a yes vote of 66.4% the voice of the people was crystal clear. Change had come. A once deeply conservative, largely Roman Catholic country, which only a couple of decades before had voted to give equal rights of life to the mother and the fetus, was beginning to shift. Almost despite itself a more modern country was emerging, one with more liberal values and one which valued protecting the rights of all its citizens.

Ireland has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. It has moved from having some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, from serving as the poster child for Pro-Life campaigners all over the world, to a country that by popular vote has legalised a woman’s right to choose. But, while progress has been made, and most certainly should be praised, there are still concerns. Many are calling for immediate improvement within the legislation, over fears that the health and safety of women is still under threat. So as the country approaches the three-year anniversary of the historic result, it’s time to both look back and reflect on what has been achieved and also to examine where the legislation still needs to be improved upon, to best determine how the country can fulfil the voters’ wishes: to make abortions accessible, safe and legal to the women of Ireland.

On the 1st of January 2019 The Healthy (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy)
Act 2018 was signed into law. Since then, clear and obvious improvements are
visible, especially when you examine the number of women who are now receiving
abortion care within the Republic of Ireland. Before abortion was legalized, it was
reported that up to 9 people were travelling to the UK to terminate their pregnancies
every single day. The numbers travelling have dropped significantly since then, and
while the exact abortion figures for 2020 are not yet available, we know that over
6500 people accessed abortion services within Ireland in 2019.

Another major success for the Pro-Choice campaign, is that all of these abortion
services are free, as long as procedures are carried out within the first 12 weeks of
pregnancy. The World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights such costs on its list of
barriers to accessing safe abortions. Also, while doctors and other medical
practitioners are allowed to refuse to provide abortion services themselves, the
legislation requires that they provide a referral to a doctor or a facility that will. All this
means that in theory a woman will always be able to access an abortion within the
country, as long as they have the time and resources to do so. We have come a long

However, major improvements still need to be made. Despite the landmark 2018
vote and the overwhelming support for a women’s right to choose, serious issues
surrounding the new abortion laws have been highlighted.

Problems have arisen around the practical issue of accessibility, with campaigners criticising the often-turbulent journey to obtaining the healthcare needed. Due to the “conscientious objection” clause within the bill, which allows medical practitioners the right to not carry out abortions, many women have faced hurdles in their pursuit of a termination. This has proved to be a barrier, particularly for women in rural Ireland. Of the 19 maternity hospitals in the Republic, only 10 actually provide abortion services. And, of these 10, 3 are located in Dublin. Recently, Kilkenny came under particular criticism when all of their OBGYNs and consultants failed to sign on to provide terminations. While under the legislation these doctors are required to provide referrals to other practitioners who will provide the service, this can still lead to people being unable to access abortion services. This issue can be particularly problematic for women when you also take into the account the mandatory three-day waiting period and the 12-week limit for procedures to take place. The three-day wait period is a particular issue for those who may not have the resources to travel, which in turn will impact their ability to obtain the service elsewhere. WHO criticises both “conscientious objection” and “unnecessary requirements, such as mandatory waiting periods” as barriers to accessing safe abortions. This is an issue with which abortion rights campaigners have particular qualms, and many believe it both endangers the lives of pregnant women and threatens their bodily autonomy.

The language used throughout the Bill has also been heavily criticised. Even prior to the signing into law of abortion rights, many had drawn attention to the problems that would arise due to some of the terminology employed. The Abortion Rights campaign groups have noted how the term “risk of serious harm to health”, which is used in the Bill, actually has no real medical standing, and for many the ambiguity in the language is of serious concern. It is feared that this will, not only cause undue stress to pregnant women, but could ultimately endanger their lives. Amnesty International have also criticised the term, and have deemed the threshold that many adhere to in regard to “serious harm” as yet another barrier, and one that is likely still forcing pregnant women out of the country to obtain the healthcare they need.

Others have called for safety exclusions zones around hospitals to be written into law. Many people have described the abuse they have endured or witnessed outside facilities which offer the service. In 2020 Simon Harris, the Minister for Health at the time, heavily criticised pro-life campaigners who were picketing outside clinics and maternity hospitals. Harris blasted them in the media condemning the “appalling” behaviour. These particular events led to a renewed call for the inclusion of safe exclusion zones outside of hospitals, but as of yet these have not been implemented.

When Savita Halappanavar died in October 2012, the debate around Ireland’s abortion laws was once again dragged into the public sphere. Savita died of severe sepsis as a direct result of being denied an emergency termination. Despite doctors agreeing that a miscarriage was inevitable and pleas from both Savita and her husband, she was not given the medication which could have helped to induce her miscarriage and which ultimately could have saved her life. For many, her tragic and untimely death marked a significant shift in the conversation around abortion - Ground Zero, if you like. Ireland has come a long way since this heart-breaking event. The shift in public opinion and the writing into law of a woman’s right to choose are both major steps in the right direction. But, to truly protect the women of Ireland, the continued presence of barriers to safe healthcare needs to be examined rigorously. As we approach the three-year anniversary of that historic vote we must, as a society, review what is still to be done.