The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in October last year has led to new surge in the abortion debate here in Ireland.
In Europe, only Malta, where abortion is banned outright, has stricter abortion laws than Ireland. Here, the high court ruling in the ‘x case‘ has determined that abortion can only be permitted in a case where the mother’s life is in immediate danger. This ruling, however, has yet to be converted into law, which was undoubtedly a contributing factor in Savita’s sad death.
I’m from The Netherlands, where abortions are available on request, free of charge, up to a gestational limit of 13 weeks. I remember this being presented in school as a hard won feminist right. I don’t know if this was the teacher’s perspective seeping through (she, thinking back, did probably hold strong feminist opinions), or the view proposed in our schoolbooks and the national syllabus as well. In any case, as a teenager, I took this view without question. I was in favour of abortion, believed it to be an undeniable woman’s right. Of course, at that time in my life, it was a purely academic question. I wasn’t even sure I wanted any children ever, never mind the possibility of me getting pregnant any time soon.
Fifteen years, a marriage and a child on, my views are a lot more nuanced. I think I am still pro choice. Ultimately, I believe that it is the mother, and the mother alone, who should be allowed to decide. Her body, her decision. If you are morally opposed to abortion, you don’t have to avail of one should you find yourself faced with an unplanned pregnancy. I guess that means I am pro choice, though I dislike applying that label to myself. Personally, I don’t think I could have an abortion. But my point of view is based on a happy marriage, and having a safe and happy home to offer to any children. I am honest enough to admit that under different circumstances I might well decide very differently too.
The abortion question in Ireland is a political affair as much as a feminist one. The Eight Amendment of the Irish constitution reads as follows:
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.
Changes to the Irish constitution must be endorsed by the electorate in a referendum. I like that about Ireland; it is very democratic. Five such referenda on abortion have been held in the state, last in 2002. All these proposed changes were rejected. This would suggest that a change in abortion laws do not have the support of the general public.
To complicate matters further, most women in Ireland who want an abortion do in fact have access to one. ‘Taking the boat to England’ is an euphemism for getting an abortion. It is estimated that around 6000 people make the journey each year. The thirteenth and the fourteenth amendments of the Irish constitution in fact preserve the right of women to travel abroad to obtain services (such as abortion) not available in the Republic.
What makes me uneasy about the whole debate is that both sides tend to be very extremist in their opinions and arguments. A friend of mine regularly posts pro-life propaganda on Facebook. He is otherwise the most logical person I know. I greatly value his opinion on most topics as he takes a very objective approach to most issues. On the abortion question, however, is refuses to consider any of the arguments in favour. The photographs and stories he shares are sensationalist and often not very representative of the reality of abortion. In Dublin city, I regularly encounter pro lifers sharing the same sort of material openly. While I’m not sure why they are protesting against something that is already illegal anyway, I can’t help but think that this sensationalist approach is not doing them any favours. It’s hard to take a position serious that appears to be supported mostly by gruesome pictures.
Of course, the pro-choicers can be as extreme in their campaigns, equally refusing to acknowledge the other side of the argument and equally using horrid and non-typical examples that have little do with reality. This is why, although my opinion is essentially pro-choice, I loath to actually be associated with the pro-life campaign.
Savita’s death was tragic and unnecessary. It has reignited the abortion debate in Ireland. It looks like the ruling of the ‘x case’ will finally be passed into legislation. A lot has changed in Irish society since the last abortion referendum was held in 2002. Perhaps it is time for another referendum. However, given that a pro-life vigil in Dublin recently attracted 25,000 participants, while the counter pro-choice demonstration only attracted 200, I wouldn’t be too sure that there will be a change in outcome.