Ireland has been criticised for having one of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws because it jeopardises women’s health and lives subjecting them to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment with a disproportionate impact on poor women, adolescents, asylum seekers, and those with disabilities or those in vulnerable situations.
On 7 September 1983 the Eight Amendment of the Irish Constitution (Right to life of the unborn) Bill was put to referendum and passed with a 67% majority.
The Eight Amendment, added this clause to Article 40 (Personal Rights) of the Constitution,
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
As a consequence abortion is only allowed in Ireland if an individual is in immediate danger of dying. Abortion is currently a criminal offence in Ireland and any individual who has or performs an illegal abortion risks up to 14 years in prison.
Many activists are putting pressure on the Irish Government to reform the anti-abortion laws.
However, there can be no meaningful public debate about reform when, 64% of people are unaware that abortion in Ireland is a crime when a woman’s life is not at risk and when less than 10% are aware that the penalty for such a crime is up to 14 years in prison.
There is a clear and urgent need to raise awareness, and address misinformation and misconceptions through the provision of accurate, unbiased, factual information about the legal and practical application of the law in Ireland.
There is also a need for clarity about the extent of reform being called for and by whom. While some activists seek complete liberalisation of abortion law without restriction as to reason, others, like Amnesty International, focus on decriminalising abortion, making the Act human rights compliant, and ensuring safe and legal access to abortion, at a minimum, in cases of rape, incest, risk to health or severe and fatal foetal impairment.
The fact that 67% of people polled support decriminalisation suggests that the Irish people are at the very least ready for a conversation about reform. When presented with facts and personal stories during the marriage equality campaign the Irish public demonstrated a huge capacity for compassion and may well be ready to support reform to replace the Eight Amendment with more compassionate laws. According to the Amnesty Poll 81% are in favour of significantly widening the grounds for legal abortion access in Ireland.
In the months leading up to the marriage equality referendum many people shared their personal stories and thousands of conversations were had about equality. Can similar conversations be had about abortion? Would or should people share their lived experience of abortion? While homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993, abortion remains a criminal offence in 2015. The power of personal stories cannot be underestimated, but is it possible or prudent to get personal about abortion given the intense stigma, criminal status and the circumstances that can give rise to it?
Despite, or perhaps because of, the emotive and sensitive nature of the topic we need calm, respectful, truthful, inclusive debate. The nation and future generations will benefit if the conversation openly welcomes contributions from multiple rather than from polarised perspectives. This is a constitutional issue and if it comes to referendum all members of the electorate will be allowed to vote and so it is not only pragmatic but also ethical to have inclusive conversations.
The general public deserve access to debates through broadcast and print media that proportionally represent a range of viewpoints. Polarised, dichotomous debates would be better replaced with conversations that acknowledge complexity. This is not a binary issue and the media have a moral and ethical responsibility to avoid setting it up as such simply to sensationalise, to sell papers or to attract viewers. Balanced debate cannot be judged on the basis of time alone nor can it be attained by giving disproportionate airtime to individuals with minority viewpoints.
There can be no tolerance of purposeful misrepresentation and adherence to the guiding principles of responsible journalism is paramount. The Irish public must not allow the media to abdicate their responsibility to truth, accuracy and humanity. What is needed is a focus on factual information and evidence, professional expert input, and lived experience with verified personal experience preferred to unverified anecdote.
Getting the facts right is a cardinal principle of journalism. We need journalists who strive for accuracy, and who give all the relevant facts ensuring that they have been checked. In addition, we need journalists who consider harm, alert to the impact of words and images on the lives of others. The debate on abortion can be enriched by personal stories but only in the context of principled journalism and respectful, calm, truthful, debate.
Petition: She is not a Criminal – Tell Ireland to change its abortion laws
An edited version of this post was published in the Irish Independent 19 August 2015