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Ireland's Big Abortion Decision

06/10/2017 10:29 | Updated 09 October 2017
Jonathan Brady - PA Images via Getty Images

In September 1983 the eighth amendment of the Constitution of Ireland was approved by referendum. This change in the law recognised the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child even though abortion was already illegal in the country. Less than three weeks later my mother brought me into the world and I began my life in a small Irish town called Longford.

It was a time in Ireland when the nation was still heavily governed by Catholicism. Having kids outside of wedlock was so disdained that pregnant women were still being shipped off to convents where 'their problem' would be hidden. Fast forward thirty odd years and Ireland is still talking about women and their reproductive rights. The country is now teeing up for what looks to be a bitter campaign over whether to change its abortion laws.

Ireland is one of the few places in Europe where abortion is illegal, even in cases of rape, incest or severe foetal abnormality. I recently had the opportunity to witness the battle over abortion when I was making a documentary for Channel 4 Unreported World.

During filming my director Kate Hardie-Buckley and I met with people from opposing sides and learned fast what the eighth amendment meant to each. For the Pro Life camp the current law protects the rights of the unborn and for the Pro Choice camp it inhibits the rights of the woman. We observed a contentious and emotive debate as both groups prepare for a referendum next summer before the Pope's visit.

While the current law restricts abortion in Ireland, it doesn't prevent Irish women travelling abroad to get one. Last year, 3,265 Irish women travelled to the UK for one. One such woman films part of her journey for us. She had an unplanned pregnancy and at six weeks decided to travel to Manchester to have an abortion. She tells us about the heartbreak of feeling like she's being exported.

We also spend time in a maternity ward at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin and hear about the impact the law has on medical professionals. We learn that having an abortion in Ireland or facilitating one carries a 14 year jail sentence, but it is legal for staff to give information about where to get one abroad. Ireland's first ever foetal medicine midwife, Jane Dalrymple counsels women who find out their baby won't survive outside the womb. She talks about the difficult choices they face after a termination abroad. 'Taking their baby home and placing it in their kitchen fridge and ringing the next day and saying what will I do with my baby?'

We also travel to my hometown Longford and meet a guy I grew up with, Thomas Reilly. He and his wife Lisa strongly oppose changing current legislation. Their daughter was diagnosed with sacral agenesis when she was born and they believe that without the eighth amendment children like her would not be given the chance of life.

From a non-Irish perspective it may look like next year's referendum will play out like the gay marriage referendum of 2015. Ireland was the first country in the world to make gay marriage legal by popular vote. However this one is a lot more nuanced and dare I say it, vitriolic.

Ireland's Big Decision airs on Channel 4, Unreported World on the 6th October 2017 at 19.30

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