Two-thirds of Irish people want abortion decriminalised, according to a survey that signals a major shift in views on a woman’s right to choose in a country that still outlaws most terminations.
Eight out of 10 people polled for Amnesty International favoured some liberalisation of the law, and 65% said abortion should be decriminalised.
Two years ago, Ireland’s parliament, the Dáil, passed legislation allowing for abortion in extremely limited cases of medical emergencies or when there is risk of suicide if pregnancy goes to full term. Under the law, doctors and medical professionals have the right ultimately to determine if a woman’s life is at risk in these circumstances.
Abortion remains unavailable, for instance, to Irish women who are raped or whose pregnancies are doomed as a result of foetal abnormalities.
The findings of the poll, based on 1,000 telephone interviews in May, demonstrate a widespread lack of knowledge about the legal risk of carrying out abortions in Ireland.
Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed did not know that it is a crime to get an abortion in Ireland when a woman’s life is not at risk. Only 9% knew that having an unlawful abortion can lead to up to 14 years in jail.
Seventy-one per cent agreed that classifying abortion as a crime “contributes to the distress and stigma felt by women who have had abortions” and 45% supported a woman’s right to choose for non-medical reasons.
In Belfast, a mother is being prosecuted for giving her daughter abortion pills to induce a miscarriage, pills which are illegal under abortion laws in Northern Ireland. As a result, over 200 women in Northern Ireland have signed an open letter from the campaign group Alliance for Choice to the Public Prosecution Service asking them to “arrest” them for using or providing illegal abortion pills. Over 200 women who are fed up with their bodily autonomy being toyed with, controlled and owned by male dominated governments.
As a recent Amnesty report put it, the laws in Northern Ireland are “draconian” and women there are being treated like “child-bearing vessels”. Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird lives in Northern Ireland and signed the Alliance for Choice petition. When I spoke to her, she said: “Whether you want to call us vessels or incubators, that’s how we’re seen in the eyes of the state. The problem is that it’s such a controversial topic that the state don’t want to touch. Everyone knows the pills are coming in. It’s all over the internet. There are Facebook pages regularly sharing information telling women if they need an abortion, where they can get it and if they’re past the mark to go to the Abortion Support Network if they can’t afford to travel.” Access to abortion as Emma Campbell, the Vice-chair of Alliance of Choice said, is very much to do with class: “You can get an abortion if you have money, a credit card and the ability to travel. If not, you don’t really have a choice because abortions are only allowed in limited circumstances.”
More than 200 abortion activists have issued an extraordinary challenge to the justice system by declaring that they have broken the criminal law on assisting an abortion in Northern Ireland.
The 215 named individuals, the overwhelming number of whom are women, said they were “inviting prosecution” about would begin to hand themselves in at police stations in response to an exceptionally rare court case which began last week in Belfast.
On Friday, a woman in her 30s went on trial at Belfast’s Magistrates’ Court on two charges of unlawfully procuring drugs used to end a pregnancy.
She cannot be named for legal reasons, in order to protect her daughter’s identity.
The court was told that the alleged offences of procuring a poison or other noxious substance knowing that ti was to be used with the intention of securing a miscarriage occurred in 2013.
The court was told by a prosecution lawyer said the case involved the alleged injured party’s mother. The judge confirmed that the defendant was being returned for trial at Belfast Crown Court.
Now a group of activists have used the case to issue a challenge which has the potential to decide whether widespread access to abortion is, at least in a de facto sense, legal in Northern Ireland.
Each of the individuals who have signed the open letter released to the media have admitted a criminal offence which in Northern Ireland carries a sentence of up to five years.
The defendant, aged in her thirties, appeared before the city’s Magistrates’ Court today to face two charges of unlawfully procuring a medical abortion medicine known for its use in terminating pregnancies.
She cannot be named to ensure her daughter’s identity is not revealed.
The alleged offences were said to have occurred at a location in Belfast on dates in 2013.
Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation contravenes article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights which states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Belfast High Court has been told.
Nathalie Lieven QC made the comment in front of Mr Justice Mark Horner, who is hearing a case where the North’s Human Rights Commission is seeking to make abortion legal in instances of rape, incest and “serious malformation of the foetus”.
The court also heard yesterday that all countries in Europe apart from Ireland North and South, San Marino, Malta and Andorra allow abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.
Ms Lieven, for the commission, said the issue of abortion in relation to these categories could not be left to the Northern Executive on the basis that it might act to legislate at some undefined date in the future.
The case is expected to last three or four days. Mr Justice Horner is hearing submissions from campaigners representing both sides of the abortion argument with the North’s Attorney General, John Larkin QC, also expected to make an oral submission.
Abortion is currently legal in Northern Ireland where there is a threat to the life of the woman or where there is a risk of a serious and adverse effect on her physical or mental health which is either long term or permanent.
Following a consultation, the North’s Department of Justice has recommended that abortion be permitted in Northern Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, but this proposed change does not apply to cases of rape and incest.