20 years ago a 14 year old girl, known as X, grabbed the attention of Ireland when she had to go to England to try to get an abortion after being raped and impregnated by a family friend. Her case lead to the first frank public discussion about abortion and the sexual and reproductive rights of women. Both the government and the Supreme Court had to take a stance one the subject and society was also actively involved in the matter through a referendum.
It looked like Ireland was finally recognizing the need for abortion regulation. Irish people voted to carry the referendum but still the Republic had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The government had the responsibility to legislate for the decision; however after almost 20 years no government had been determined enough to approve the regulation that was required. Today, Irish people still don’t know exactly what this kind of abortion means in real terms.
Not even the recommendations made by United Nations on reproductive rights were enough to compel the government to bring forward the legislation. The response, published in the Outcome Report on Ireland’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2011 and 2012, showed successive governments’ rejection of recommendations on the subject of abortion.
On the 19th of April 2012, a bill was presented to the Dáil to allow abortion in Ireland in cases where the mother’s life was at risk. The Private Members´ bill “Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in Case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Woman)” was rejected by 109 votes to 20. That wasn’t enough. The striking comments made by elected Mayo TD Michelle Mulherin blaming “fornication” as the single greatest cause of unwanted pregnancy in Ireland, placed the discussion in a moral and religious field.
However, is important to acknowledge abortion as a moral, ethical and legal matter, each one independent from the other. It is not about establishing priorities between them. Different cultures, philosophies and religions around the world have distinct opinions and many of them believe in the necessity of abortion under specific circumstances.
In the Jewish tradition, for instance, before birth, the foetus is not considered as a human being, therefore it is legal to get an abortion when the mother´s life is in danger. The United Methodists don’t consider the possibility of existence of human beings before their birth. Also, some Islamic jurisprudence accepts abortion until 120 days from the conception.
The Catholic Church only considered abortion as a serious sin punished by excommunication in 1869. But Catholic theology has not traditionally been obtuse on this subject. In the 15th century the theology on abortion developed by Archbishop Antonius of Florence and the Dominican theologian John of Naples permitted early abortions to save women´s life. Even later, some theologians considered that the early foetus, prior to about 90 days, didn’t have a soul yet.
Despite that, nowadays the Vatican´s position is that artificial contraception is unethical and voluntary abortion may never be licit.
Where Catholicism is the predominant religion, as happens for instance in many of Latin American countries, cultural and social relations are influenced by Catholic ethos. Abortion, instead of being part of women´s reproductive rights, is regarded as a crime. Not only does criminal law prosecute women who get an abortion, but also they have to suffer moral and religious disapproval, which multiplies the punishment for their behaviour.
However, countries like Colombia have legalized abortion in specific circumstances. The Colombian Constitutional Court has allowed abortion since 2006 to save the life of the mother, when the foetus has a deformity that compromises its own life or when the pregnancy is a result of a rape. But despite the legal authorization sometimes medical practitioners deny this treatment pleading moral issues.
Morality cannot be linked to law. Morality is about individual conscience. Morality is followed independently and freely by each individual.
Governments and politicians in every country have to acknowledge that the numbers of women having abortions are increasing. Banning abortion doesn’t stop women from making that choice.
In Ireland, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) has stated the need for domestic based abortion services. The government failure to face reality means that women´s and girl´s rights are being denied on a daily basis. They claim “the criminalisation of abortion has little impact on abortion rates; it merely adds to the burden and stress suffered by women experiencing crisis pregnancies”.
A public policy has to have an objective. If the goal is not being accomplished it should be reviewed and a new approach considered. However with subjects like abortion, the policy and the legislation have to be based in reality and the government has to remember that countries like Ireland are secular states.
Legislation is not made to reflect what legislators privately think is right. The government is not entitled to create law based on morals and beliefs. In order to create law it is necessary to remove religion from the political and legal sphere. This is where public opinion has a very important role.
Changing the law may not be the Cultural Revolution that society needs to accept abortion as a part of a woman´s rights, but could be the first step to separate state policies from religious beliefs. Women should have equal treatment before the law as men; they don’t have to worry about getting a medical procedure that could save their life. Women do.
For this reason it is important for Irish women to understand, as the North American theologian Daniel C. Maguire, S.T.D. said: “Catholic theology on abortion and contraception was written almost exclusively by men. It is time now for the women to speak.”