Repeal 8 abortion campaign in Ireland hopes to replicate success of Poland protests

There is a growing abortion rights movement in Ireland, where laws are among the most restrictive in the world and result in "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of women in some cases, according to the UN.

Ireland has long criminalized abortion, which is punishable by up to 14 years in prison

Artist Dara Kenny painted this mural on a wall in Arklow, Ireland, in support of the Repeal 8 campaign, which aims to get rid of the Eight Amendment of the Irish constitution and decriminalize abortion. (Dara Kenny/Facebook)

"I just raped you, now you're forced to have my baby," read a sign at an abortion rights demonstration in Dublin last month.

The March for Choice, which drew thousands of participants, is part of a growing movement in Ireland, where abortion laws are so restrictive that they result in "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" in some cases, according to a recent UN human rights committee finding.

Ireland "should amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy, including, if necessary, its constitution," the committee said.

While the recommendation is not binding, it was enough to compel Prime Minister Enda Kenney to convene a citizens' assembly, which will hold its first meeting on Saturday, to discuss whether the country of 4.8 million should hold a referendum on abortion.

The move comes just a few weeks after Poland, another staunchly Catholic EU country, tried — and failed — to tighten its similarly restrictive abortion law.

A crime that carries prison sentence

Abortion has been a criminal offence in Ireland (and in Northern Ireland) since the 19th century. But in 1983, Ireland enshrined a ban on abortion in its constitution with the adoption of the Eighth Amendment, which guarantees "the right to life of the unborn … with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother."

Today, some women in Ireland say the time has come for their government to "repeal the Eighth" and provide access to abortions that are safe, legal and free. The Repeal 8 campaign is backed by more than 60 organizations, including unions, medical practitioners and human rights groups.

Savita Halappanavar was denied an abortion in an Irish hospital as she miscarried and died as a result in 2012. Her death galvanized the abortion rights movement and prompted a legislative change that allowed abortions in cases of 'substantial risk' to the mother. (Irish Times/Associated Press)

Anger over the country's abortion restrictions has been simmering ever since the October 2012 death of a 31-year-old woman who was denied a potentially life-saving abortion during a miscarriage.

'Today's electorate is demographically, culturally and spiritually in a completely different place from the electorate of the mid-1980s.'- Simon Mills, medical ethicist

In the wake of that case, the government introduced the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (PLDPA) in 2013, which allowed abortions in cases of "real and substantial risk" to the mother's life.

It was an attempt at compromise, but it also made obtaining or performing an abortion punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

"We knew in practice the PLDPA would be almost unworkable as the fear of a 14-year prison sentence has a chilling effect on doctors," said Caoimhe Doyle of the Abortion Rights Campaign.

Just what constitutes "real and substantial" risk is open to interpretation. The European Court of Human Rights has found, for example, that there is "uncertainty" in how that risk is assessed.

Electorate supports reform 

Simon Mills, a doctor, lawyer and medical ethicist who has addressed several parliamentary committees on abortion, says that before abortion laws can be liberalized, the Eighth Amendment will have to be repealed or replaced.

According to Mills, modern Ireland no longer accepts the absolute authority of the Catholic Church, and most of the major political parties support some form of change to the abortion law.

"Today's electorate is demographically, culturally and spiritually in a completely different place from the electorate of the mid-1980s," he said.

This painting by street artist Maser was removed from a wall in Dublin in July because it had not been approved by the city planning department. Repeal 8 graffiti has popped up around the country. (Maser/Facebook)

Irish women have long gotten around the abortion ban by making the 7½-hour ferry crossing to Britain, where abortion is legal. The Irish Family Planning Association estimates that about 5,000 women each year travel abroad for the procedure.

But that option is not available to women who don't have the time or money to make the journey or who cannot travel because of health or legal issues.

"[That's] health care they should be able to receive at home," Doyle said. 

Some women go online and buy the abortion pill, which is also banned in Ireland. In 2014, the Health Products Regulatory Authority seized more than 1,000 imported abortion pills (known in Canada as RU-486 and available by prescription).

Ireland and Poland 'extreme outliers'

Ireland is unique among industrialized countries, most of which have moved toward more liberal abortion regimes since 1950, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global advocacy group headquartered in New York. 

"Ireland and Poland should be considered extreme outliers in this regard," said Christian Adam, one of three German researchers who have studied the evolution of "morality policies" in Europe over the last 50 years.

Other predominantly Catholic nations such as Italy, Spain and Portugal allow abortions within certain gestational time limits. 

The EU is reluctant to interfere in its member states' legislation on morally sensitive issues, Adam said, but the European Court of Human Rights has weighed in on specific cases.

Mills said most people in Ireland would likely accept a version of an abortion law "that has more exceptions than are currently provided for," including pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or cases where the fetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb.

Even Poland's strict laws make exceptions in those cases, though earlier this month, the governing Law and Justice party said it was considering a legislative proposal that would have disallowed them. The government reversed its position after a series of rallies drew tens of thousands protesters.

"This is testament to the power of effective protest," Doyle said. Repeal 8 hopes to have similar success in Ireland.

The Polish government abandoned a legislative proposal for a total ban on abortion after days of massive protests, like this one in downtown Castle Square, Warsaw, on Oct. 3, 2016. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

Irish government employing 'delay tactics'

Last July, Ireland's lawmakers voted on a bill to allow abortions in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities, but it was defeated.

The two main parties in Ireland see their conservative voter base as anti-abortion and so neither of them want to be seen as the party who 'introduced' abortion.- Caoimhe Doyle, Abortion Rights Campaign

Now, the 99-member citizens' assembly will study the issue. Its recommendations, expected by June 2017, will go to an all-party committee for consideration.

But Doyle calls that process a delay tactic.

"The two main parties in Ireland see their conservative voter base as anti-abortion and so neither of them want to be seen as the party who 'introduced' abortion," she said.

If they did, it wouldn't be the first time that Ireland had embraced social change. It was the first country in the world to ban smoking in the workplace in 2004. Then in 2015, it became the first to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote after a referendum in May of that year.

Several opinion polls have suggested the majority of the public supports some type of abortion reform.

"We know that it is not the people in Ireland that are lagging behind but the politicians," Doyle said.

With files from Reuters