Reproductive Rights in Ireland: Part 2

What do these things have in common: secretly driving a van filled with photocopiers around Dublin; removing the back pages from magazines; and the letters A, B, C, D, and X?

Welcome back to the history of reproductive rights in Ireland…

We left at 1985 when condoms had just been made available without prescription and a foetus’ right to life was enshrined in law as the same as a woman’s. Strap yourself in for some more pseudonyms, acronyms, and solid-gold bullshit.

Trigger Warning for mention of rape.

1987″“1991: The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) sued agencies who were giving out information about abortion abroad, such as the Well Woman Centre and Open Door, and were successful. While these agencies appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR), the Union of Students of Ireland (USI) defied the court-imposed ban on abortion information, and SPUC took them to court. The back pages of UK publications – like Cosmopolitan, and the Guardian – were removed, as they contained ads for UK abortion services. Dublin City Council voted to remove books from their libraries that contained information about abortion. While the court case was still ongoing, SPUC was awarded costs of IR£29,000 from USI. So, in August of 1991, the USI  cleaned out their premises of anything that could be considered an asset: the new crop of USI officers (mostly 21-year-old students) piled computers, photocopiers, and anything else of value into vans and drove around Dublin trying to hide them where the bailiffs wouldn’t find them.

The European Commission, incidentally, agreed with the clinics, but the EHCR did not. The European Court of Justice didn’t side with the clinics either, because abortion was not a “service” that they were economically tied to under the EU’s Treaty of Rome. This suggested that, if the agencies had a financial tie to the clinics they were giving information about, they would be allowed to continue giving information about them. However, this potential avenue for abortion services was closed down when the Treaty of Rome was replaced by the Maastricht Treaty in 1991: Ireland got a special provision in it made for its constitutional position on abortion (see previous link for details). SPUC eventually won their case on appeal, but USI’s campaign was one of the main pressures behind the introduction of the Abortion Information Act in 1995.

Ivana Bacik speaking at the Labour Party convention, 2010
Senator Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College, and one of the few openly pro-choice politicians in Ireland. She was one of the USI officers named in SPUC’s case against USI.

1992 ““ the X Case: A 14-year-old old girl was raped by a neighbour and family friend (both X and her rapist lived less than a three-minute walk from where I grew up, so this is a particularly vivid issue for me). She was pregnant as a result of the rape and was suicidal: her parents planned to take her to England for an abortion. Before they left, they contacted the Gardaí in charge of the case to ask whether DNA testing of the products of conception would be admissable in the case against the rapist. The Gardaí contacted the Attorney General’s office, who took out an injunction preventing the girl from leaving the country. She later had a miscarriage, but the Supreme Court ruled that an abortion was permissable if the woman’s life was threatened, including by suicide: a mere threat to her health was not enough to permit an abortion. This ruling led to the 13th and 14th amendments to the constitution (passed by referendum), which allow the right to travel outside Ireland for abortion and the right to information about abortion services abroad. The proposed 12th amendment, which would have prohibited abortion on grounds of suicide, i.e. undo the precedent set by the X Case, was rejected. The X case can be regarded as one of the major turning points in public opinion on abortion.

X’s rapist served just four years in prison.

1995: Both the X Case and SPUC’s actions led to the introduction of the Abortion Information Act, which lays out strict criteria for agencies counselling women about their pregnancy options, and is still in force. Information about abortion can not be given unsolicited or in any way other than face-to-face counseling – no billboards, no publicly available flyers, no phone conversations. Crisis pregnancy agencies are not obliged to give information on abortion nor refer to an agency who does; some Catholic agencies, such as CURA, are upfront about that, but like CPCs in the U.S., some exist specifically to give inaccurate information on abortion or to counsel women away from abortion, e.g. LIFE.

women holding a sign saying "This 'clinic' lies to women"
Members of Choice Ireland protest outside a CPC on Upper Dorset St., Dublin, in 2007.

1997 ““ the C case: Another raped and suicidal teenage girl wanted an abortion. This time, however, her parents prevented her from leaving the country through an injunction, as she was in the care of the health board at the time. The courts decided in her favour under the terms of the X case, and she had an abortion in England.

2007 ““ the D case: This 17 year old was also pregnant and in care. She was not suicidal, however her foetus had a lethal abnormality – anencephaly – and she did not want to continue the pregnancy. The courts again decided in her favour, and decided furthermore that if she required assistance to travel, the care authorities must provide it. This is also then considered to apply to other pregnant women in care, who would not have to be suicidal in order to obtain an abortion. This did not mean that a woman carrying a foetus with a lethal abnormality was entitled to an abortion in Ireland; it just meant that the state could not prevent a girl in their care from travelling abroad for an abortion. Miss D also had an abortion in England.

2010 – A, B, and C v. Ireland: The European Court of Human Rights ruled on three cases taken by the IFPA in 2005 under the select terms of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to life; the right to a private and family life; prohibition against torture; and protection from discrimination.

A already had several children who were in care: she contended that another child would risk her chance to resume custody of her existing children and violate their right to a family life. B’s case was simply that she did not want to be pregnant or to become a parent. C was a cancer patient who underwent cancer treatment without knowing she was pregnant. When she found out, she attempted to get accurate information on what effect her treatment may have had on her fetus and what risk there was to her health if she stopped treatment to continue the pregnancy. No doctor would or could give her that information. All three women had travelled to England for abortions:

“I couldn’t believe the decision…. Apparently, my life wasn’t at immediate risk…. The delay in having an abortion could well have made my condition worse.” ““ Michelle Harte, another woman with cancer who had to travel to England for an abortion in circumstances like C’s.

The lawyers for the Irish state claimed that if a woman’s doctor did not think there was a “real and substantial” risk to her health due to pregnancy, she could always (a) find another doctor, or (b) apply to the courts. Yet, somehow, the government could not provide evidence of any legal abortion performed in Ireland under the terms of the X case – you know, those abortions that they claimed were so easy to get already.

A smiling woman in scrubs holds up a stethoscope
All of us have a spare obstetrician and a few lawyers on hand, right?

The court rejected the claims of A and B, but they found in favour of C: commentators at the time of the judgment thought this ruling would force legislation to outline in exactly what circumstances an abortion is permitted here, but since a new government came to power in February 2011, they have convened yet another committee to look at the “problem.” All bets are off as to when this committee will deliver its recommendations, which the government don’t have to implement, in any case. Any change to the terms of the X Case would require another referendum.

Next, I’ll look at wider reproductive rights in Ireland – assisted reproduction, pregnancy and birth, and contraception – as well as the still-murky issue of under what circumstances terminations are actually being performed in Irish hospitals and what Irish attitudes to abortion actually are. There may be ranting.

4 thoughts on “Reproductive Rights in Ireland: Part 2”

  1. Do you happen to have any potential figures for the number of Irish women who travel to Britain for abortions every year? I’d always heard somewhere in the realm of 7,000-9,000, but when my sister did her first obs and gyn rotation at her medical school (in England) she was told the NHS estimates the figure to be significantly higher – closer to 16,000.

  2. I attended a Loreto Convent Secondary School during the mid 90s. The teaching staff was made up of, at most, 20% nuns. The only lay teacher not afraid to express his views on the abortion referendum was our sole male teacher. He was the only adult I knew who had no bones about saying that he was pro-choice and what a woman does with her body is no business of anyone else.
    I remember people being very confused about the referendum. A very paranoid atmosphere of the EC “forcing abortion on us”. Some people were convinced that a yes vote on any amendment would pave the way for “abortion-for-all” (they thought this a bad thing).
    There is a sense now, with the right to travel, that women’s rights are not curtailed. Because if you want an abortion badly enough you’ll follow the simple steps of raising 700 euro for your abortion in the UK plus flight/ferry/accommodation money, scheduling a “vacation” (we don’t talk about abortion here) from your work/family commitments, travelling and booking a clinic, and if you aren’t a citizen or permanent resident, trying to get a holiday visa to get into the UK.
    Its a system where you have to do an emotional and financial obstacle course.

    1. Yes – I only remember one teacher (in our convent school, max 10% nuns) who would even discuss the topic (in CSPE, no less) and she said that she probably wouldn’t get an abortion herself, but didn’t see that she had any right to tell another woman she couldn’t.

      I think having a legal and safe option that’s relatively accessible and close for many women (though not, as you point out, for women who can’t go abroad or access a lot of money quickly) is actually an obstacle to getting abortion legalised here – the groups who would usually agitate for social change don’t personally feel the urgency. I may rant about that next week too!

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