This week saw a significant step forward for Ireland as, finally, we are progressing the much-needed legislation to ensure women and girls in this country can access safe and legal abortion services.
Just four months after the 8th amendment to the Constitution - which imposed a near-total ban on abortion - was repealed by a two thirds majority, a new law, the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018, has been introduced into Dáil Éireann.
This is the culmination of 35 years of struggle for women to be able to exercise their basic right to choose to continue or to end a pregnancy. The new legislation will allow for abortion on request up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and in limited circumstances after that up to viability.
While we celebrate and acknowledge the law as a hugely significant step forward, we are concerned about a number of terms in the Bill which would be unnecessarily restrictive and potentially discriminatory. The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment - the national civil society campaign to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution – is therefore calling on legislators to make a number of constructive amendments to the Bill as it passes through the houses of the Oireachtas (parliament). We need now above all else to ensure realistic access to abortion throughout the country for all women who need it.
Among our chief concerns is the stipulation of a mandatory three-day waiting period. This is unnecessary and paternalistic, and undermines women’s informed and competent decision-making. There is no medical reason for a ‘cooling off’ period, and it can lead to care being delayed, therefore threatening a woman’s ability to access abortion services within the strict 12-week gestational limit. The World Health Organisation oppose mandatory waiting periods, as they constitute a barrier to safe abortion access, and they have in fact been discarded in a number of countries. We believe this condition was included in the draft legislation for entirely political reasons as a ‘buy off’ to anti-abortion sentiment among some members of the Oireachtas.
The draft law provides for abortion up to viability where continuing the pregnancy would risk ‘serious harm’ to a woman’s health. We are strongly opposed to qualifying risk to health in any way and believe the phrase ‘serious harm’ should be removed. It is out of line with best medical practice and with international human rights standards. Medical experts here and internationally believe that the person best placed to decide the level of risk during a pregnancy is the pregnant woman herself, based on medical advice and her own personal circumstances.
We are also concerned about the lack of clarity in the clause in the Bill dealing with conscientious objections. We believe that the law must be specific and explicit about the conditions and obligations applying to conscientious objection, and that these must not hinder a woman’s right to access abortion. The law must stipulate that doctors who object to abortion have nonetheless an unconditional obligation to make an appropriate and timely referral to another doctor or medical service. It must also be clear that conscientious objection can apply only to an individual and not to an institution, such as a hospital. A further and practically very important point is that particular provision must be made for rural areas, where options are limited and where the conscientious objection of one doctor may seriously delay or ultimately deny a woman access to abortion.
Finally, and among a number of other issues we have raised with the Minister for Health, we are highlighting the need to fully decriminalise abortion. As it stands, the Bill would lift criminal sanctions against pregnant women, but it would remain a criminal offence for all others who ‘intentionally end the life of a foetus otherwise than in accordance the provisions of this Bill’. This is unacceptable for medical professionals and other service providers. We would like to see decriminalisation of all areas in relation to abortion provision.
We have waited so long for this legislation. We now need to make sure that the law – when enacted – genuinely enables women to access the health services that they need, when and where they need them. Anything less would be a sham, and a denial of the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.
Ailbhe Smyth is the Convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, founded in 2013, is an alliance of 100+ organisations including human rights, feminist and pro-choice organisations, trade unions, health organisations, NGOs, community organisations and many others