Repealing the eighth – The wider impact

Today, the Republic of Ireland votes on whether to repeal the country’s eighth amendment, and, in doing so, lift a thirty-five year ban on abortion. The referendum has provoked debate across the world, including in the UK.

Ireland’s eighth amendment provides an unborn infant with equal rights to life as a mother, effectively outlawing abortion in the country. The amendment was passed in 1983 amidst widespread support, with only five constituencies voting against it. Since then, over 170,000 women have been forced to travel outside of Ireland for an abortion, and the trauma and fear caused by these journeys has been well documented.

In 2012, the case of Salvita Halappanavar, who died after she was refused an emergency termination during a miscarriage, caused outrage in Ireland and signified the beginning of a campaign to amend the law. Subsequently, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed to allow the termination of pregnancy in cases where there is a “substantial risk” to the mother’s life. However, ‘Yes’ voters who wish to repeal the eighth amendment argue this is not enough, and that all women should be allowed to make a choice depending on their own personal circumstances.

The repeal campaign has a large lead in the polls, although this margin has narrowed in recent weeks. If the yes campaign is successful, abortion will be permitted for all pregnancies up to 12 weeks, and at any time in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, there is a medical emergency or a fatal foetal abnormality. Alternatively, if Ireland votes against the repeal, the eighth amendment will remain as it is.

The Situation in Britain

While Britain’s stance on abortion is significantly more liberal than Ireland’s, some observers have argued that there is more to do to increase access to abortion. Currently, abortion in this country is regulated by both the 1967 Abortion Act and the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Under the former, an abortion can legally be carried out by a registered doctor, providing that it has been authorised ‘in good faith’ by two medical practitioners and complies with at least one of the following terms; that the pregnancy has not exceeded 24 weeks, could cause serious harm or death to the woman, or that the child is likely to suffer from severe, debilitating disabilities.

In practise, these conditions are more lenient – in essence, an abortion is available to any woman in mainland Britain who has not passed 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Offences Against the Person Act means that home abortions, even when carried out with the same medication used in certified clinics, is punishable by life in prison, but these instances are rare as most women seeking abortions in Britain tend to visit certified clinics.

The law is very different in Northern Ireland. Here, abortion is only legal under the terms of the Infant Preservation Act, which permits termination only if the mother is at risk of serious mental or physical harm. In 2014, a 19-year old woman was given a suspended prison sentence after buying drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage because she did not have enough money to travel to mainland Britain for a legal abortion. Cases like this have provoked criticism about Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. A recent inter-Departmental report from the Northern Irish government has called for changes to the law, which they believe prevents women from accessing proper standards of healthcare, and places doctors in situations which are ‘professionally untenable’.

Further reform?

Since the legalisation of abortion in mainland Britain fifty years ago, a debate has emerged over whether British abortion laws are still too stringent. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has launched a campaign which calls for the outright decriminalisation of abortion in all parts of the UK. This would include allowing women to use abortions pills in the home, rather than having to face the financial implications, physical distress and emotional strain of travelling to and from abortion clinics.

The home-use abortion pill has already been legalised in Scotland, a move which has received praise from medical organisations but has been condemned by pro-life campaigns; The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) are calling for a judicial review of the new legislation, describing the home-use pill as a form of “DIY abortion”. There are also fears that legalising the home-use abortion pill could lead to some women using it as a form of contraception which could lead to poorer sexual health.  

Further concerns that outright decriminalisation will eliminate the 24-week time limit for terminations have been raised. However, the British Medical Association (BMA), who voted in favour of decriminalisation, insists that regulations will still be in place – but these sanctions will be imposed by medical rather than criminal bodies. Nonetheless, in a public survey found that 72% of respondents opposed further changes to Britain’s abortion laws.

Conclusion

Whichever way Ireland votes in its referendum today, the highly charged debate around abortion is likely to continue in the UK and Ireland. Recent debates in the House of Commons suggest there is widespread sympathy for allowing women to access abortions at home to avoid the distress caused by visiting a medical practitioner. However, equally, there remain strong critics of this apparent liberalisation of abortion laws in Parliament. It therefore remains unclear how abortion laws will evolve in the UK in the years to come.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue