Ireland’s Overturned Abortion Ban Could Inspire Movements Worldwide
A beacon of hope amid a wave of rollbacks on women’s rights.
On Friday, in a landslide of more than 66%, Ireland voted to overturn one of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws. Previously, the heavily Catholic country was governed under its eighth constitutional amendment, which gave fetuses equal rights as mothers and banned abortion under nearly all circumstances. Under the law, women who aborted fetuses after being impregnated through rape could serve more jail time than their rapists.
The referendum was spurred, in part, by national and international protests in 2012, after the death of an Indian woman living in Ireland who had been refused an abortion. She died, 17 weeks pregnant, from cardiac arrest, brought on by septic miscarriage.
Now that the amendment has been overturned by popular vote, legislation restricting abortion to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is expected to pass by the end of the year. Though that’s not a huge time window, it’s still a big leap forward for women’s rights. And it has inspired activists in Northern Ireland, the only place left in the UK or on the island of Ireland where women can’t terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Here’s hoping it inspires more countries to do the same. Access to safe and legal abortion services is a key indicator of women’s empowerment; last year, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for “quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services” including “safe abortion where such services are permitted by national law.”
Some countries demurred, including the US, with its representative telling the Council, “we do not recognize abortion as a method of family planning, nor do we support abortion in our reproductive health assistance.”
The US and many other (mostly male-led) countries may not, but the world’s women do. Of the estimated 80 million unintended pregnancies around the world each year, more than half end in abortion — often unsafe and/or illegal abortion that poses a risk to the mother’s life.
Rather than ensuring women’s safety, the past few years have instead seen a steady legislative incursion on women’s reproductive rights. Since 2016, a wave of increasingly strict measures aimed at limiting access to abortion have been passed in states across the US, where abortion without a specific reason has been legal since 1973. In the same time, the country has had an outsized effect on women’s access to abortion abroad; the Trump administration reinstated and expanded the “global gag rule,” or more formally, the Mexico City Policy, which bans all overseas recipients of US aid from not only performing, but also counseling or referring patients to get abortions — a policy that many see as disastrous to African health care broadly. These moves and others have given rise to women’s movements in the US.
Poland, too, has seen recent sweeping protests. The country, already known for its strict abortion laws, has recently proposed making them stricter. Currently, the country only allows abortions in the case of rape or incest, if the mother’s life is in danger, or if the fetus is chromosomally abnormal. In 2016, officials there attempted to ban abortion entirely, but backed down as protests swept the country. In March, officials attempted again to tighten restrictions, proposing legislation that would ban abortion even in the case of malformation of the fetus. Women protested carrying signs that read, “I will not give birth to a dead baby.” The bill is pending before parliament.
India has a fairly liberal abortion law, dating to 1971, but subsequent laws have limited access to it. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Bill 2014, is, in part, aimed at ensuring women’s access to safe and legal abortions, but has been languishing with parliament for years. (Of course, India has it’s own dubious history with reproductive rights outside of abortion.)
Still, Ireland is not the only locale with good news for women. Argentina, which like most of Latin America has been known for draconian abortion laws, has opened up the topic for debate, saying a referendum like Ireland’s is “on the table.” Legislation that would legalize abortion before 14 weeks is also pending before Argentina’s Congress. And last year, Chile made news for lifting a total ban on abortion to allow the procedure if the mother’s life is in danger, if the pregnancy is the result of rape, and if the fetus was developmentally unsound.
But a new measure may dilute this widening of women’s rights. Earlier this year, the Chilean government passed a law allowing individual practitioners to deny the procedure on personal moral grounds, effectively limiting women’s access to a legal procedure in the heavily Catholic country.
Two steps forward, one step back still adds up to progress.