Why Irish women must have the right to choose abortion

Abortion became illegal in Ireland under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. One hundred and fifty years later, it is still illegal. Today, Ireland still has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, with abortion being illegal in all circumstances except where there is a threat to the life of the pregnant woman. Yet, abortion is as much a fact of life as it is in Britain, the United States or any European country where it is legal. In the last thirty years more than 147,000 Irish women have travelled abroad for access to safe abortion.

Over the course of those same three decades the debate on Irish abortion has been conducted in a highly dysfunctional manner. For the most part, women who have had abortions remain invisible; their actions concealed under a veil of hypocrisy and political cowardice, so that the myth of an abortion-free Ireland can be maintained.

It is assumed, as a matter of course, that the abortion debate is different here, that it is too sensitive, too controversial for Irish sensibilities. On the limited number of occasions when abortion is acknowledged the terms under which the debate is managed are extraordinarily limited. For many years the discussion was conducted in abstract, ethical and philosophical terms, which is one of the reasons why the X case was so important.

X changed the nature of the debate by clarifying precisely the argument on which the whole debate about abortion rests. Do you think the rights of the woman, her life, her hopes, her well-being should be considered paramount? Or, do you think that a foetus, still invisible to the naked eye, should have rights that supersede those of the woman? In February 1992 Irish people were forced to answer those questions and overwhelmingly they sided with the woman. Thousands of people took to streets and forced the hand of the judiciary, making abortion legal in Ireland where a woman’s life was a risk.

Since the X case there has been a significant shift in people’s attitudes towards abortion, so that today opinion polls and research consistently show wide support for access to abortion services within Ireland.

A 2004 Crisis Pregnancy Agency study found that 90% of 18-45 year olds support abortion in certain circumstances, with 51% stating that women should always have to right to choose an abortion.

In 2007, an Irish Times Behaviour and Attitudes Poll found that 54% of women believe the Government should act to permit abortion.

In 2010, an Irish Examiner/Red C Poll found that 60% of people supported legal abortion and three in five people aged 18-35 believed abortion should be legalised.

Also in 2010, a Marie Stopes/YouGov opinion poll indicated that 79% of those questioned were in favour of liberalisation of Irish abortion laws in certain circumstances.

Furthermore, in referendums in 1992 and in 2002 people rejected proposals to reverse the X Case decision and to further restrict access to abortion. Yet, despite these levels of support the Irish electorate has never been give the opportunity to make abortion less restrictive or, indeed, to offer legal abortion.

However, even 20 years after the X Case the abortion debate continues to focus on the extreme cases - where a woman’s life or health is at risk or where a woman is a victim of rape or incest. Even pro-choice advocates seem more comfortable on this terrain, as somehow abortion is more justifiable in these cases because it is not really the woman’s fault that she is faced with this decision.

However, reality again is very different. The vast majority of the 147,000 Irish women who had abortions in the last three decades did not decide to do so because their life was at risk, nor were they were suicidal, nor had they been raped. They choose abortions for thousands of different and sometimes complicated reasons. They made a decision. Sometimes it was a difficult choice, sometimes it wasn’t, but it was their decision to make. Instead of respecting and facilitating that choice the Irish State denies them their autonomy, brands them criminals, and forces them into exile.

There is nothing more fundamental for a human being than autonomy over her or his own body; it is essential to what it means to be a free, rational human being. If Irish women are denied the fundamental freedom to make rational, informed and ethical decisions about their own lives, their own bodies, their own personhood, then all the other freedoms that we have fought for and continue to fight for don’t really amount to very much at all.

We have waited twenty years for some type of action on abortion. How much longer must we wait for women to be afforded control over their own body and respect and acknowledgement for the decisions that they make? {jathumbnailoff}

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