The Invisible Irish Abortion

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The Invisible Irish Abortion

Marcy Bloom

Marcy Bloom examines the stigma and silence that still surrounds abortion in Ireland, despite the fact that every year thousands of Irish women and girls "make the journey" elsewhere to access abortions.

I recently read a moving book called The Irish Journey: Women's Stories of Abortion, produced by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) in Dublin, Ireland. As is true of these anthologies that mirror women's lives and struggles, these stories are invariably powerful, infuriating, tragic, inspirational, and also reflective of the stigma and silence that still surrounds the culture of abortion in Ireland.

The preface to the book reads:

"Ireland's refusal to accept the reality of abortion, and acknowledge the humanity and rights of the individual woman behind the statistics, bestows a sense of shame on women and creates secrecy and isolation to reinforce that feeling."

Ireland has one of the most severe anti-abortion laws in the world and it is the most restrictive in Europe (Irish Times, July 9th, 2007). In fact, a ban on abortion is written into the Irish Constitution (Articles 58 and 59). Abortion is allowed, but only if there is a "real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother." In 1983, Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution was amended to protect "the right to life of the unborn" and essentially gave the fetus equal rights to that of the pregnant woman.

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Ivana Bacik, professor of criminal law at Trinity College in Dublin and spokesperson for the Safe and Legal (in Ireland) Abortion Rights Campaign, gave an eloquent statement to the Irish Times:

"Fear and hypocrisy must give way to compassion and empathy; the argument for abortion is long overdue … Everybody knows that planeloads of women travel to England for terminations every year, but everybody pretends that abortion does not exist in Ireland."

Ah, yes, the invisible Irish abortion. The invisible pregnant Irish woman. Why take on women's lives and reproductive choices as a political and social issue if both the "problem" and its "solution" can be exiled to other countries? Clearly, far too many Irish politicians believe that it is perfectly acceptable and expedient to ignore women for as long as possible.

Professor Bacik further indicates that annually 5,000 women make the journey to England for abortion and that about 100,000 Irish women have had abortions in the last 30 years. Some sources indicate even higher numbers. Mary Favier of Doctors for Choice estimates that 150,000 Irish women have had an abortion, which averages to about 1 out of 10 adult Irish women. Women's eNews recently reported that an estimated 7,000 women living in Ireland travel elsewhere every year for abortions. In addition, an increasing number are also traveling to the Netherlands and Spain, where health care services are more affordable. A pro-choice rally held this spring by Choice Ireland in Dublin showed a woman holding a sign with another incredibly disturbing statistic: 2002-2005, 1,035 girls aged 17 and under traveled outside of the country for an abortion. These trips abroad to obtain an abortion are so common for Irish women and girls that they are referred to euphemistically as simply "making the journey."

The issue of young women seeking abortions deserves special attention. A series of high profile court cases (1992, the "X" case; 1997, the "C" case; 2007, the "D" case) all involved adolescents who were initially denied the right to travel for their abortions, but were ultimately allowed to do so after court intervention. The first two court cases involved two 14 year-old suicidal rape victims and the most recent, in May of this year, involved a 17 year-old emancipated minor whose pregnancy was severely deformed and deemed incompatible with life.

Regarding the latter case, the IFPA released this strongly worded statement:

"…the 17 year-old at the centre of the case should not have had to endure 10 days of protracted court proceedings to establish her right to travel for an abortion … the proceedings … delayed her access to a termination, as well as causing undue stress to a girl already dealing with the traumatic diagnosis of a lethal fetal anomaly."

IFPA, Doctors for Choice, Choice Ireland, the Alliance for Choice, and the Safe and Legal (in Ireland) Abortion Rights Campaign are all calling for the Irish government to end its denial around the reality of abortion and to finally recognize the truth: that abortion is a normal, common, necessary, and significant experience for women and girls everywhere in the country. To do otherwise is cruel and inhuman, and a blatant violation of the rights of women. Abortion can no longer remain a politically convenient invisible issue in Ireland simply because many women are able to scrape the resources together to go to England for their abortion care (and this is hardly easy or simple; many women and girls suffer undue hardship to raise the money to travel).

One of the down sides observed about Ireland's proximity to England is the safety valve this has provided to successive right-wing governments which have refused to acknowledge the critical need for safe and accessible abortion services in Ireland. It is believed that if this "escape route" to England and other countries did not exist, the horrors and consequences of illegal abortion would be far more prominent in the country.

As Mary Favier of Doctors for Choice passionately states:

"It is frustrating and undermining for all of the women who travel to England every year to see political groups support their right to do so, but not take the next logical step of publicly supporting abortion provision in Ireland. (But) Ireland is changing in spite of the efforts of the Catholic Church and the main political parties. This social and cultural liberation will be much faster in the next twenty years than the last twenty. With hard work and committed campaigning by pro-choice groups, it is likely that in twenty years time, there will be some form of legalized abortion in Ireland."

Twenty years seems to me like a very long time for Irish women to wait for reproductive justice and their right to safe and respectful in-country abortion care that will allow them to be able to determine the destiny of their lives. The "Make it Safe, Make it Legal Campaign: Raising Awareness, Fighting Stigma, Realizing Rights" needs to make it very clear that they want safe and legal abortion now.

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