Ireland abortion scandal: Scrap the eighth amendment

The current storm that has erupted over abortion rights shows no sign of abating, writes Anne Mc Shane

The death of Savita Halappanavar on October 28 at University Hospital Galway has produced huge outrage. A young woman died because she was refused an abortion, despite her increasingly desperate appeals. She had presented to the hospital in the throes of a miscarriage and the foetus was unviable. But she was told that she could not have a termination as long as the unviable foetus had a heartbeat. Doctors explained to the despairing woman that the constitution prohibited abortion unless her life was in immediate danger. They were confident she could survive during the time it would take for the foetus to die inside her. They were wrong. But by the time they acted it was too late.

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, subsequently got in touch with Galway Pro-Choice and they advised him to contact the Irish Times. The publication of the story on November 14 immediately triggered a massive outpouring of disgust. Since then many thousands have joined demonstrations throughout the country. Every newspaper, news report and current affairs programme is dominated by the issue and the government’s attempts to make the problem disappear.

Immediately, taoiseach Enda Kenny made clear that he was not going to be pushed into making any changes to the law. He has attempted to set up a private inquiry under the control of the health service executive (HSE), which actually runs the hospital. But Praveen Halappanavar has refused to cooperate and demanded instead a full public hearing into the events and issues surrounding the death of his wife. In a bid to undermine his objections the government axed three original members of the inquiry, who are consultants at Galway Hospital. But this is has not been enough. Parveen has demanded that the HSE should have no involvement, as not surprisingly he thinks they will try to cover up.

The doctors who told Savita that they could not legally end the pregnancy were correct. Under the constitution a woman can only have an abortion if her life is at immediate risk. The eighth amendment was introduced by a Fine Gael/Labour coalition in 1983 following a referendum dominated by the Catholic church. Article 40, as amended, “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right of life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect and ... to defend and vindicate that right” (my emphasis).1 In other words, a foetus has priority over a woman unless her life is in immediate danger. As a foetus cannot express its wishes, the church, state and its pro-life supporters in the medical establishment take it upon themselves to fight for its ‘rights’ - which means a complete denial of the right of a woman to choose whether or not she wishes to give birth to a baby.

There was another huge controversy in 1992, when the attorney general sought an injunction from the high court preventing a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim, known as ‘X’, from travelling to Britain for an abortion. The injunction was initially granted, but was overturned on appeal by the supreme court. The court ruled that article 40 should be interpreted to include the threat to the life of the woman from suicide.

In the aftermath of this case there was a campaign to legislate for that decision. However, for 20 years successive governments have refused to do so. Indeed the last Fianna Fáil government unsuccessfully held a referendum in 2002 to specifically rule out potential suicide as a ground for abortion. Then in 2010 Ireland found itself before the European Court of Human Rights in a case brought by three women who were forced to travel for abortions in cases where their health was at risk. The court found the Irish state to be in breach of the Convention of Human Rights and noted the “chilling effect” of Irish legislation on the lives of women. Following that decision the government set up an ‘expert group’ in November 2011 - which has yet to report. Of course, this was yet another attempt to evade change. United Left Alliance TDs Clare Daly and Joan Collins presented a private members bill in April to prevent a repetition of the ‘X case’. They said they were doing so in order to put the government under pressure, and not because they believed the narrow change they proposed was in any way adequate.

Demanding such limited legislation is absolutely the wrong way for our movement to proceed. It in no way addresses the question of a woman’s right to choose, leaving it up to psychiatrists to decide if a woman is really suicidal and ‘deserving’ of an abortion. But others are now jumping on the ‘X case’ bandwagon. The pro-life Sinn Féin is cynically trying to put itself at the head of the movement for such legislation. Meanwhile in the north of Ireland it has forcefully opposed abortion. Martin McGuinness recently stated that “Sinn Féin is not in favour of abortion” and has successfully resisted “any attempt to bring the British 1967 Abortion Act to the north”. This is because Sinn Féin is motivated by “what we believe is good for our people”.2 Not, of course, what is “good” for the many hundreds of women who, like women from the south, travel abroad for abortions.

The church is very nervous of the strength of the current movement. Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin wants everyone to calm down and wait until there is an inquiry. His opposite number, Enda Kenny, agrees. Both have stated clearly that they are against abortion and do not want to change the present law. Martin stated in July that “the suicide option” would create “an open-door situation, and it will be very difficult to hold back”.3

The vile misogynist views of Irish politicians should not surprise us. They represent the deeply reactionary establishment that has happily ruled over a ‘Catholic state’ for many decades. Even today, with the church in disgrace over revelations of its systematic abuse of children in its care, we are told that Catholic doctrine should determine women’s lives. The 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann (constitution) is a deeply reactionary document, drafted by the equally reactionary taoiseach, Éamonn de Valera. De Valera imposed a Catholic constitution on Irish women. A woman’s place was in the home - literally, as she was forced to give up work when she got married, a ban which continued in the public sector right up to 1973. Article 41 stipulates that “the state pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of marriage” and that “by her life within the home the woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”.

The most important immediate call is for the eighth amendment to be revoked. Women in Ireland must have the right to choose - and now. The ULA has now accepted this demand, although the issue was omitted from the alliance’s 2011 election material. When I raised it at a public meeting, I was told by Socialist Workers Party TD Richard Boyd-Barrett that the ULA did not have a position on abortion and there were very many different views in the organisation.

Now the ULA must push for the immediate removal of the eighth amendment. In addition sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 criminalise both women and doctors. These must be scrapped now. There is no other answer. ‘X case’ legislation would not have helped Savita. She was not suicidal. On the contrary, she had wanted her baby and was deeply distressed to learn she was miscarrying. Because the foetus could not survive she asked for an abortion in order to end what had become an intolerable situation mentally and physically. She was refused.

Such decisions must not be taken by doctors, lawyers or clerics. Women must have the right to choose for themselves. The ULA must go much further than ‘X case’ demands and fight for what is needed. It would be a serious dereliction of duty for the alliance to take an opportunist stance and call for ‘X case’ legislation as a ‘stepping stone’ to free and accessible abortion on demand. In reality it would set the movement back and leave Irish women stranded once more.



1. www.constitution.ie/constitution-of-ireland/default.asp.

2. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-19930422.

3. www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/martin-disputes-need-for-law-on-abortion-201680.html.