26th Oct 2016

Irish and Polish people march for abortion

  • A pro-choice rally in Dublin in 2012. The current abortion legislation "belongs to something from a fascist state," an activist said. (Photo: William Murphy)

A global solidarity march in favour of repealing Ireland’s strict abortion laws is taking place in over 20 countries on Saturday (24 September).

Arranged by the Irish diaspora in cities like Brussels, Berlin, Paris, New York, Sydney, and Warsaw, protesters are putting pressure on the Irish government from abroad; calling for a referendum on the matter.

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Abortion in Ireland is outlawed unless a woman’s life is found to be in danger, including the risk of suicide. Any woman presenting with suicide ideation must have her condition confirmed by an obstetrician and two psychiatrists before an abortion is permitted.

Under the Irish constitution, a woman’s life is deemed equal to that of the unborn, following a constitutional amendment inserted in 1983, known as the “8th amendment”.

Lobbyists for change say the 8th amendment should be repealed through referendum, arguing that it is archaic and out of touch with reality, given that at least 12 women per day travel to the UK for abortions.

The 8th amendment is “embarrassing” and “outdated,” says Dervla O’Malley, one of the organisers of Saturday's rally in Berlin.

“It belongs to something from a fascist state,” she said. She said the only other country to have introduced into law the idea that an embryo “equated to a living human being” was Chile under its late dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Two rallies will take place in London; one outside the Irish embassy and the other at the Polish embassy. The Polish parliament is mulling stricter abortion laws.

As things stand in Poland, women can have an abortion in case of rape or fatal foetal abnormality.

On Thursday, the Polish parliament discussed changes that would include provisions to jail women who illegally obtain an abortion as well as an increase of jail time from two to five years for surgeons who perform them illegally.

"It’s very worrying”, Polish activist Inga Wojcik told Euobserver, adding that the ruling right-wing PiS party “really wants to please the [Roman Catholic] church."

Doctors' frustrations

“Abortion is very controversial now,” she said. During the communist era, it was “very easy” to have an abortion, but after that the church “took control” and spread “propaganda”, and things “changed”, she said.

In Poland, around 150,000 abortions take place outside the permitted parameters.

In Ireland, the abortion rights campaign said it expects around 20,000 people to show up to the march in Dublin.

Several left-wing politicians are involved, but abortion has always been an area that many Irish politicians have shied away from addressing, given the highly sensitive and emotive nature of the debate it evokes.

In 2013, the government introduced limited legislation in order to satisfy doctors’ frustrations who had been previously been left without clarity as to when they could legally intervene to save a woman’s life by performing an abortion.

It arose from the tragic case of 31-year old Savita Halappanavar, where the delayed intervention to remove her foetus, in spite of the fact that she would certainly miscarry, led to her contracting septicaemia.

Giving evidence during the inquest into her death, a leading Irish obstetrician, Peter Boylan, said it was “highly likely, on the balance of probabilities, that she would not have died” had she been given a termination in the early stages.

Master of Ireland’s largest maternity hospital, Rhona O’Mahony says the 8th amendment is having a chilling effect on how doctors operate. The current law imposes an infinite fine and up to 14 years imprisonment for anyone, including the woman or doctor found in breach of Ireland’s abortion laws.

“Doctors are charged with making highly complex decisions in relation to substantial risk to life, in a criminal context,” O’Mahony said.

Threatening letters and packages

During the debate which led to the introduction of the limited legislation, many Irish politicians complained of receiving threatening letters and packages from extreme anti-abortion groups.

Prime minister Enda Kenny told the Irish parliament that he received “plastic foetuses and letters written in blood.”

“I’m now being branded a murderer and have on my soul the deaths of 20 million babies”, he said.

As of now, there are no firm plans by the government to hold referendum on repealing the 8th amendment, but campaigning MP Ruth Coppinger (Socialist) said she is “confident” that if enough pressure is put on the current government, one is likely to be held next year.

The government says it will hold a “citizens assembly” next month on this and other matters, where a group of 100 randomly selected citizens will determine whether to recommend a referendum on the matter.

Although a similar process led the government to hold a referendum on same sex marriage, pro-choice lobbyists says the use of the citizens’ assembly allows the centre-right Fine Gael-led government further delay dealing with the issue of abortion in Ireland.

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