Jo Tacon looks at the current abortion rights situation on both sides of the Irish border
An Irish solution to an Irish problem? In both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, abortion is all but banned – only available in cases of severe risk to the life of the mother, in theory. In practice, even people who need an abortion for medical reasons can find it very difficult to access the care required, while people who desperately want an abortion can travel abroad to procure a termination.
Abortion is de facto available to the people with the means to pay for travel, accomodation, and a medical procedure; with the option of going to Great Britain for an abortion acting as a safety valve, the issue of abortion has long festered in both countries, periodically flaring up, only to subside once more into quiescence.
But there are welcome signs of progress for the pro-choice movements in both the north and the south. A pro-choice rally – the All Ireland Rally for Choice – was held in Belfast on July 7, and attracted a good crowd. A response to an anti-abortion rally held on the same day, the Rally for Choice was lively and loud, with some great speakers – as this video shows.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of people in Ireland favour a women’s right to choose in most circumstances. In reality they are not ‘pro-life’, but anti-choice,” said Laura Myles, a spokeswoman for the Abortion Support Network.
In the Republic of Ireland, meanwhile, a controversial anti-abortion ad campaign has been criticised for its misleading slogan. Beside a picture of a woman or a foetus which has been digitally ripped in half are the words “Abortion tears her life apart”. This slogan ignores the fact that a recent report found that 87 percent of Irish women who had had abortions considered the procedure the “right outcome”.
Stephanie Lord wrote an excellent and robustly factual piece attacking the ads for The Journal. She points out: “If [the anti-abortion ad campaign’s backers’]concern for women was genuine they would not spend the large costs of these billboards on trying to shame women about the choices they have made. Instead, they would channel this money in to campaigning for women to have access to not only contraception, but then this would mean tolerating a world where women are allowed to enjoy non-procreative sex.”
The ad campaign was paid for by a group calling itself Youth Defence, which claims to be a grassroots Irish anti-choice organisation. However, its Irishness has been called into question – for example, the Youth Defence Facebook page has amassed nearly 40,000 “likes” from people in the United States, and only just over 9,000 from people in Ireland. And as a commenter on the previous link notes, until recently the donation form on Youth Defence’s website (archived version here [PDF]) had dollars instead of Euro signs listed, with the option to donate up to $5,000 available – not exactly what you might expect from an authentically “Irish” group.
As the pro-choice movement has come to expect from anti-abortion groups, Youth Defence peddles distortions of the facts in its attempts to turn public opinion against the right to choose. In a column for the Irish Times, Dr David Robert Grimes tackles the twin myths favoured by anti-abortion groups – that abortion is linked to mental illness and cancer – and systematically debunks them. As he says,
“The issue of abortion is an emotive one, with myriad views constituting a spectrum of beliefs and opinions, and there is nothing wrong with this. But while we all have the right to our own opinion, we do not have a right to our own facts – trying to justify a position with fabrication and truth-bending is intellectually dishonest and fosters disinformation and fear rather than informed discussion, obscuring informed debate.”
With groups like Youth Defence, backed by US anti-choice dollars, active on the political scene, articles like those by Dr Grimes and Stephanie Lord, and protests like the Rally for Choice in Belfast, are more vital than ever. In the meantime, the cruel ban on abortion continues to cause huge – and unnecessary – suffering to Irish women for whom abortion is the only humane and safe option.
The Guardian recently highlighted the plight of pregnant women who are told that their babies are terminally ill, but who are unable to obtain a termination in their local Irish hospital, close to their support networks and their homes. Instead, they are forced to travel abroad, usually to the UK, to undergo an abortion. What is an already painful situation is made much worse by the need to travel to another country, with all the difficulty, distance, and expense involved.
Another Guardian article reported that the number of people seeking help from a charity which helps Irish women get terminations in Britain “is set to double for the third year in a row”, with numbers boosted by “tough economic conditions” in Ireland.
As the recession continues to affect disproportionately people who are already in economically precarious situations, the “Irish solution to an Irish problem” – namely, forcing people in need of an abortion to go abroad – is less effective than ever, and bitterly symbolic of a country which refuses to face up to the fact that access to safe, legal abortion is the best – indeed the only – way to help women facing a crisis pregnancy.
Arlette Lyons, a Dubliner who was forced to go to England for a termination after learning that her baby would be born dead, described the pain she felt:
“We had the termination in March and I suppose I couldn’t believe that we had to leave our friends and family, and the treatment in our own maternity hospital was so fabulous, to leave all that support from everybody behind who were looked after us, I was just horrified.
“The world needs to know that this is happening in Ireland in 2012 and it has to stop.”