Why Ireland’s abortion referendum is a necessary risk

Members of the pro-choice movement group hold a 24-hour protest outside Leinster House in Dublin in 2013.

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 In astonishing news, this week the Irish government announced plans to hold a referendum next year to decide whether to overturn a decades-long ban on abortion in almost all circumstances. The referendum will ask citizens to vote on repealing the constitution’s eighth amendment and will take place just a few weeks before Pope Francis is expected to visit.

The news comes as Marie Stopes International in Australia has announced it is seeking backers and philanthropists to donate to a $3 million fund for those who cannot afford to access an abortion in this country. The average cost of a private procedure in Australia is $500, and MSI’s new tax-deductible gift recipient status makes it easier than ever for donors with means to assist those facing financial hardship and an unwanted pregnancy.

How do Australia’s abortion laws stack up?

We compare the laws surrounding abortion in Australia and the rest of the world.

Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, which means thousands of women still travel abroad each year to access terminations. Abortion in Ireland was already regarded as illegal under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, but the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1983 introduced an amendment to effectively ward off any attempts to challenge laws regarding abortion on the back of similar changes to legislation seen in other countries. The Eighth Amendment introduced a sub-section that declared, “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”.

The consequences of Ireland’s constitutional eighth amendment are precisely what pro-choice campaigners fear happening in Australia; that is to say, the introduction of fetal personhood laws that equate the moral, physical and spiritual rights of a fetus with those of a fully formed human capable of carrying a pregnancy.

What this overwhelmingly means is that the lives of women are devalued as secondary to the potential lives they may carry inside them.

The UN human rights committee last year (repeated again this year) declared that Ireland’s abortion legislation was “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. And it’s not just about those seeking an abortion to liberate themselves from pregnancy. It’s also about those who require it as a lifesaving measure.

This October will mark five years since Savita Halappanavar was left to die in a Galway hospital after medical staff refused her demands for an abortion. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant and having a miscarriage when she sensed the end of her pregnancy had caused blood poisoning. Despite repeatedly begging for a termination, she was denied. She died shortly after.

Of the 30 medical staff handling her case, 21 were informed there was no case to answer while the remaining nine were given limited sanctions.

In 2016, an Italian woman with a twin pregnancy was refused an abortion after presenting to the Cannizzaro Hospital with worsening complications, including a drop in blood pressure. Abortion is illegal in Italy after 12 weeks, and over 70 per cent of doctors there refuse to provide abortions. Valentina Milluzzo miscarried within hours and died shortly after.

Despite these figures (not to mention the statistical data that shows abortion occurs more and not less in countries where access is restricted), there are still anti-choice zealots in Australia who will be paying close attention to the results in Ireland, looking for an opportunity to try to restrict the hard-won rights we have in this country; especially in light of the Marie Stopes’ donor invitation.

The Australian Christian Lobby has already been emboldened by the repulsive permission given to the public to lie about LGBT lives and communities in the same-sex marriage postal survey, and it’s fair to say it would leap on the opportunity to use identical tactics to further restrict abortion in Australia.

Ireland is at least using a binding referendum to feel the pulse of its nation (as it did in 2015 when its citizens voted overwhelmingly to allow same-sex marriage), but the Turnbull government has shown it’s not interested in grown-up approaches like that.

Still, it’s a risky move for Ireland and the proportion of its population that can get pregnant, because the referendum will undoubtedly give license to opponents to use every move in the anti-choice playbook.

Shame, religious dogma, abuse and accusations of murder – these will all be wielded to hateful effect as the referendum approaches, especially with the visit of Pope Francis looming just beyond it.

I remain cautiously optimistic that, given the opportunity to correct a grievous legislative wrong, the people of Ireland will show the same nous they did in 2015.

But religious shame is very difficult to challenge, particularly when it’s supported by the misinformation and cavalier disregard for actual human life that is so often displayed by the anti-choice movement.

All eyes will be on Ireland as they wrestle with the decision of whether or not to deliver what is a moral and legal right to its citizens, especially as so many other campaigners around the world seek opportunity to do the opposite.

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