Katie looks at the significance of the abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland, and whether it is enough.
What will be the impact of the referendum in Ireland?
On the 25th of May a historic referendum on abortion laws took place in Ireland in which 66.4% of votes were made in favour of legalising abortion. This was a truly landmark decision for a nation in which four out of five people identify as Catholic, a region that stipulates that life begins at the moment of conception and therefore abortion is a kin to murder. The vote demonstrates that the tide has turned in the Republic of Ireland, more women than ever recognise their right to determine the fate of their body and more men than ever recognise the necessity for female choice. But what will this referendum really lead to, how will it impact the lives of Irish women for generations and will it change the nation for good?
To really understand the origins of the debate on abortion one must look back over two thousand years, to Jeremiah 1.5 in which it is revealed the Lord said “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”. This line from the Bible has been used by Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, people from all denominations of Christianity, to argue that we were mapped out by God before our conception, that any conception is a part of God’s plan and therefore to terminate any pregnancy is to go against the will of God. People have come to conclude that from conception, even from your conception in the eyes of God, one is a life and has the same value as all life outside the womb. It is on this fundamental point that those who have spent years campaigning for repealing of Ireland’s eighth amendment would disagree. Pro choice activists in Ireland and across the globe are not all, though some will be, claiming that the foetus is of no value but believe that the woman’s right to determine what happens to her body is of superior worth. This means that while one woman is free to decide that her life is such that she wants a baby and can take care of one, the woman standing next to her in a queue or at a pro choice rally can choose for herself what suits her, if she is too young, already has too many children, financially unstable or simply does not want to be a mother then she can make that choice, for her own body.
After the referendum women in Ireland are now promised they will have that choice. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has stated that new legislation will be introduced by the end of this year and will permit abortions up to the 12 week mark and up to 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances. While 12 weeks may seem an early stage in a pregnancy 79% of abortions in England and Wales take place in the first 10 weeks. As a result, statistically speaking, this change to Ireland’s laws will have a huge impact on Ireland’s women and now the vast majority seeking abortions will be able to do so within their own country’s health system. This will dramatically reduced the numbers of women, which often exceed 6,500 per year, secretly travelling to the UK to receive an abortion, completely alone and without support. These women will now be able to share their story more freely and seek support from those around them, so that women in the future will be less riddled by the shame and ignominy that has always come with abortion in Ireland. Women in Ireland are now not only free to make choices for their own bodies but free from the pain of stigma and judgment.
However, there are limits to the impact this law change will have. The most important is that women who have no idea they are pregnant, who may not realise until much later than 12 weeks, will not be able to access abortions unless there are mitigating circumstances. In England and Wales the law is different as abortion is allowed up until 24 weeks as this is recognised as the point of liability, after which the woman no longer has the power to make choices for the baby because it would be a viable life separate from her. As a result some women, when their pregnancy is between 12 and 24 weeks, may still travel to the UK to seek an abortion. However, given that only 10% of abortions take place after the 13 week stage far fewer woman will be forced to make this journey than currently are. In addition, we must remember that this it is not a ‘cure all’ result, women in Ireland will likely have to defend their right to choice for decades to come as the pendulum of politics will mean that one day this right may be threatened. However today, for the majority of women, the referendum result will have a transformative impact. Women’s issues are firmly on the political agenda in the Republic of Ireland and this result is a fantastic leap in the right direction. Next stop, change in the North!