The subject of abortion is, to put it mildly, an emotive one in Ireland. The fierce battles waged between anti-abortion groups and those who would support a woman's right to choose has resulted in a curious constitutional position. This position might be surmised by the phrase: Not in my back yard!.
It all began with the 1861 Offences against the Person Act (introduced of course by Britain) which warned that any person
"performing, attempting to perform or assisting in an abortion...is liable to penal servitude for life."
While other European
countries at the time had similar laws, they liberalized them in the 20th century. However, Ireland, staunchly Catholic
, remained implacably opposed to abortion.
In 1967, the British Abortion Act, allowed terminations in that country and thousands of Irish women have since been travelling there (including those from Northern Ireland where the new Act did not apply).
The 1979 Family Planning Act finally allowed the use of contraceptives in the Republic. Many liberals hoped that abortion would soon be legalised. In fact the opposite happened. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) successfully campaigned for a constitutional amendment which was passed in a referendum. The eight amendment put the rights of the fetus to life on a par with the life of its mother. Thus terminations could now only be carried out in extreme circumstances.
Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution begins
"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 in as far as practicable, in its laws to defend and vindicate that right."SPUC
had won a considerable victory but within a decade the unequivocal
nature of the article itself would lead to its amendment.
In 1986, Justice Hamiltion ruled that Article 40.3.3 meant the provision of information about abortion (e.g. how to go about having one) was illegal. This judgement was sought to prevent the support groups Open Door Counselling, Well Woman and three student unions from providing such information. This ruling was later upheld by the Irish Supreme Court and even by the European Court of Justice.
However, in 1992 a 14 year old girl, pregnant as a result of rape was refused permission to travel to Britain for an abortion. This case, commonly referred to as the X-case (to protect the identity of the girl) lead to a public outcry and a new referendum which suggested three changes to Article 40.3.3. In the end the courts relented since it considered the girl to be suicidal and thus her life was threatened by the pregnancy.
The first two proposals, namely that a woman should be free to travel to another country for an abortion and that she should have access to information on the procedure were carried. However, the third proposal allowing abortions in the case where the mother was suicidal was voted down. To many it seemed the electorate were adopting a hypocritical attitude. Yes you can have abortions abroad just as long as no abortion clinics open on Irish soil.
In 1998, another unfortunate young girl (13) was refused permission to leave the state for an abortion; this time by her father. The C-case (as it came to be known) threw up more constitutional headaches for the court. To date politicians have avoided leglisating on this topic, not even in response to the 1992 referendum. A policy document was drawn up which listed seven options from an outright ban to abortion on demand. The talking goes on, the song remains the same.