Briefing Document - Abortion in Ireland February 2012 The Reality Although abortion is a criminal offence in Ireland, this does not mean that women living in Ireland do not have abortions. Every day, 12 women travel from Ireland to the UK to access abortion services abroad - since 1980 at least 150,000 women and girls have made this journey. In addition, women for whom travel is impossible, because of financial hardship or immigration reasons, are increasingly ordering medication online to self-induce abortions. Women and girls in Ireland who require abortion services experience stigma and discrimination, lack of information and lack of information from the State. Statistics show that women travelling from Ireland tend to have abortions later. This is only one aspect of the significant psychological, physical and financial burdens placed on women because they cannot avail of appropriate services in Ireland. These burdens were highlighted by the judges of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of A, B and C v Ireland. When pregnant women choose to travel for an abortion, they are forced to do so without a referral letter from their doctor outlining their medical history. A doctor would not expect any patient to access any other medical treatment in this way, in particular in the case of a patient with a life-threatening illness. Those who experience most difficulty and delay are those who are already marginalised and disadvantaged, those who most depend on the State, those who are young, those who are undocumented and those who are living in poverty. The Law Abortion is legal in Ireland only where the woman’s life is at risk. In all other circumstances abortion is criminalised, punishable by life imprisonment. Irish law does not allow for termination of pregnancy when the woman’s health is at risk, where the pregnancy is a result of rape and/or incest, where the foetus will not survive outside the womb or where the pregnant woman decides that continuation of the pregnancy is not in her or her family’s best interests. It is not against the law for women to travel abroad to access abortion services or to access information on safe and legal abortion services in other countries from an Irish service provider. Abortion is criminalised by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. In 1983, Article 40.3.3 was inserted into the Irish Constitution. It states that “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, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." In 1992, the Supreme Court in the X Case judgment ruled that abortion is lawful in Ireland when there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman. This includes the risk of suicide. However, lack of legislation or medical guidelines means that in practice, abortion is inaccessible in all circumstances for all women, even when a woman’s life is at risk. In 2010, in the case of A, B & C v Ireland, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously found that Ireland’s failure to give effect to the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion in Ireland when a woman’s life is at risk violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. To give effect to this judgment the court told the Irish Government that it must resolve: o the lack of legislative criteria or procedures that allow for a practical assessment by doctors and women of a “real and substantial risk to the life of the pregnant woman”; o the absence of a framework to examine and resolve differences of opinion between a woman and her doctor or between doctors; o the chilling effect of the severe criminal penalties for having or assisting an unlawful abortion which can interfere with medical consultations between a woman and her doctor. Expert Group In response to the ruling the Government, in January 2012, established an expert group to recommend a “series of options” on how to implement the judgment. The expert group is to report within six months. Three government committees have already submitted reports on abortion and outlined options: the 1996 Constitutional Review Group, the 1999 Cabinet Committee which oversaw the drafting of a Green Paper on Abortion, and the 2000 All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. The European Court of Human Rights was especially critical of Ireland’s failure to implement any of the recommendations of these committees. It is unlikely that the Court will be satisfied with a further menu of options in the absence of political commitment to action. To give effect to the Court’s judgment the expert group must now propose legislation to provide for lawful medical treatment and medical guidelines so that doctors can make a practical assessment of what constitutes a “real and substantial risk” to the life of a pregnant woman. Public Opinion Since 1992 referendums inserting guarantees of the right to information and to travel in relation to abortion have been passed, while proposals to further restrict the legal right established in the X case have been rejected on two occasions. Opinion polls and research consistently show increased support for access to legal abortion within Ireland. A 2004 Crisis Pregnancy Agency study found that 90% of 18- 45 year olds support abortion in certain circumstances, with 51% stating that women should always have to right to choose an abortion. In 2010, an Irish Examiner/Red C Poll found that 60% of people supported legal abortion. Also in 2010, a Marie Stopes/YouGov opinion poll indicated that 79% of those questioned were in favour of liberalisation of Irish abortion laws in certain circumstances. International Context Ireland’s restrictive laws on abortion are totally out of step with those of its European neighbours. Forty four out of 47 European countries provide for abortion to protect women’s health. The overwhelming consensus throughout Europe allows for some access to legal abortion to protect a woman’s health and well-being, applying a more effective, less punitive approach than that which is in force in Ireland. A number of UN treaty bodies have made trenchant criticisms of Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws and have urged Ireland to undertake reform. In 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended that Ireland bring the law into line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the UN Committee Against Torture and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights have also urged Ireland to take action. Abortion and mental health The relationship between abortion and mental health has been the subject of much debate and research. During the past decade, the highest quality and most methodologically sound international evidence shows that abortion does not increase the risk of mental health problems. Most recently, a major 2011 study by the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK found that rates of mental health problems for women experiencing a crisis pregnancy are the same whether women have an abortion or continue with the pregnancy. Women’s experiences of abortion, however, are diverse and complex and the decision is not one that women take lightly. Women’s reasons for choosing abortion, such as financial worries, concern about the well-being of other children, diagnosis of serious foetal abnormality, pre-existing health problems, including mental health problems, and relationship issues can all be extremely stressful. For women in Ireland, the stress involved in making the decision is exacerbated by having to travel to another country to access abortion services, by the expense involved, by feelings of fear and stigma, by secrecy, by a sense of isolation or by lack of support. However, research conducted by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency found that abortion “rarely causes immediate or lasting negative psychological consequences in healthy women.” And the experience of our counselling centres is that while most women who have abortions experience a range of emotions, the primary emotion is relief.
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