#Legisl8: and why the fight for abortion rights in the Republic is not over
This blog is one of a series of perspectives written by members of London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign to mark the first anniversary of the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Read the rest here.
On May 25th 2018, we achieved the incredible when the Irish electorate voted overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth amendment from the Constitution. A year later, we have a new law in place and services running. For the first time in Ireland’s history, abortion is available to those who need or want it in early pregnancy. A few short years ago, abortion on request in Ireland seemed like a distant dream. Now it’s a reality.
However the system is far from perfect. Between January and March 2019, more than 126 Irish people travelled to the UK for an abortion. The Abortion Support Network is still receiving calls from Irish clients. Many of these people are over 12 weeks pregnant, but some - despite being under 12 weeks gestation - are travelling due to difficulties accessing services in the Republic. There remain those who cannot travel and abortion pills continue to be ordered online. The new law is clearly not working for everyone.
While abortion is technically free, it remains inaccessible for many who need it. The insistence that abortions above 9 weeks must take place in a hospital setting means that people often have to travel long distances in order to find a provider. At the time of writing, only 10 out of a total 19 maternity units are providing abortion services. It's also worth remembering that for people in the North, accessing an abortion in the Republic will cost at least €450.
The new legislation does not respect patient autonomy as it should and perpetuates the stigma surrounding abortion which we have tried so hard to break. The ability of medics to refuse to provide care (or “conscientiously object”) acts as a barrier to people finding a provider. Additionally, people wishing to access an abortion under the new law are faced with a patronising mandatory 3-day waiting period. This wasn’t recommended by either the Citizens Assembly or the Joint Oireachtas Committee, and has been deemed harmful and demeaning by bodies like the World Health Organisation. There is no evidence that waiting periods have any impact on a person's decision to have an abortion. They undermine the decision-making power of pregnant people and imply they cannot be trusted with their own healthcare choices.
The new legislation maintains criminal sanctions for medical professionals or others (such as friends or family) who help someone obtain an abortion outside the constraints of the law. Aside from enforcing abortion stigma, this creates a “chilling effect” whereby medics interpret the law overly cautiously for fear of prosecution. We should not forget that, when the waiting period is taken into account, the cut off for accessing abortion is in reality 11 and a half weeks. For people with a regular 28-day cycle, this is just 2 missed periods. Some people (for example those with irregular periods or younger women) may not even have realised they are pregnant by this point.
Once people reach pass this cut-off, the criteria for accessing an abortion at home becomes a lot more restrictive. People seeking an abortion on health grounds must meet the vague but equally extreme criteria of “risk of serious harm”. Within the first month of services being enacted, a woman whose foetus had life-threatening anomalies was turned away from a Dublin hospital and forced to travel to England for a termination.
The Health (Termination of Pregnancy) Act which was signed into law last December is a far cry from the truly free, safe, legal and local system many of us fought for. We shouldn’t have to settle for less than an abortion service which places patient autonomy and evidence-based care at the centre. We shouldn’t have to settle for people continuing to travel or order pills illegally. Simon Harris has committed to a review of the legislation within 3 years, and there is no reason this can’t happen sooner. But these improvements won’t be made without all of us putting pressure on the Government and letting them know that we deserve better. We fought long and hard to repeal the 8th amendment. We still have that fight within us - let’s use it now.