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Ireland Deserves a Referendum on Abortion

A clinically dead pregnant woman is being kept on life support against the wishes of her parents to preserve the life of her unborn fetus. How many more victims is my country's antiquated abortion law going to claim?
December 22, 2014, 2:40pm

Pro-choice activists demonstrating in Dublin. Photo by William Murphy via Flickr

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

Ireland's regressive abortion laws have claimed another victim. A clinically dead pregnant woman is being kept on life support against the wishes of her parents in an attempt to preserve the life of her unborn fetus.

The woman, who's in her late 20s, cannot be named due to a court order. However, it has been reported that the fetus is between 16 to 20 weeks old, meaning the woman will need to be kept on life support for another nine to ten weeks for the fetus to be considered viable.

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This weekend, the young woman's father told the Irish Independent that he wants to lay his "poor little girl to rest." Only, instead of being allowed to exercise the most basic of rights you'd expect a parent to possess, he's been forced to appeal to the high court tomorrow to allow his daughter to die with dignity.

A pro-choice rally in Ireland

This deplorable situation is a direct result of Ireland's antiquated abortion law—specifically the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, introduced in 1983, which guarantees that the life of the mother and that of the unborn fetus are considered equal. This stipulation leaves doctors in a difficult position, as ending the woman's life would result in the termination of the fetus—something medical staff may be held responsible (and therefore prosecuted) for.

Last week, Leo Varadkar—the minister of health for Fine Gael, the lead partner in the current coalition government—defied the party line to call for a referendum on whether or not the Eighth Amendment should be repealed. Varadkar described the law as "restrictive," arguing it has a "chilling effect" on doctors.

One could suggest that this is simply political posturing, as it's not the first time Varadkar has challenged Enda Kenny, the party leader and Taoiseach (prime minister). He also described referendums as not "very democratic" in 2012, suggesting he might not actually know what a referendum is. Predictably, Kenny has distanced himself from Varadkar's comments, saying the minister was speaking in a "personal capacity."

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But whatever Varadkar's motivations, it's a debate that needs to be brought to the public. For a start, Ireland is the only country left in Europe where abortion is illegal. And according to a poll in October, support is high for a referendum on liberalizing the current Irish laws around abortion, because how many more national disgraces are we, the Irish people, expected to sit back and allow?

Savita Halappanavar

The most high profile victims of Ireland's abortion laws include: Patient X, a 14-year-old girl who was raped and became pregnant in the early 1990s, before Attorney General Harry Whelehan sought an injunction to stop her from having the fetus aborted legally in Britain; Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital after miscarrying and contracting septicaemia because doctors wouldn't allow her to have an abortion; and, most recently, a migrant woman who, after being raped, tried to access abortion services, citing suicidal feelings. Unbelievably, proving that your unwanted pregnancy is making you want to end your own life is one of the only ways to get yourself in front of the panel of doctors who decide whether or not you can legally have an abortion.

Regardless, the woman was denied an abortion and forced to undergo a caesarean section at 26 weeks. She was given no choice over an issue that concerned only her. After already suffering a highly traumatic event, she was forced to suffer further at the hands of the state.

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It's an unfathomable embarrassment that an ostensibly developed country voted "the best in the world" can actively and repeatedly put women through this kind of ordeal.

A placard at an abortion rights rally in Dublin. Photo by William Murphy via Wikipedia

Last week, a motion was put to Dail Eireann (Irish parliament) members by independent TD (the Irish equivalent of MP) Clare Daly to repeal the Eighth Amendment. I suspect this was more of a symbolic gesture than anything else—Daly and the 12 other TDs who voted in favor of the bill must have known they were going to be overwhelmingly rejected by the house, which they were, at 110 to 13. But it's certainly a step in the right direction.

But should people's lives and a woman's right to bodily autonomy really be subject to a parliamentary vote? Is it not very basic common sense that a human being should be entitled to a choice over what happens to their own body? That women shouldn't end up dead—or kept alive against the wishes of their family—because 110 people don't like the thought of a complete stranger having an abortion?

Action needs to be taken now, and a national referendum would be vastly more representative than the situation we currently have. The Eighth Amendment has to be repealed before we end up with more innocent victims.