Ireland’s opposition leader catalyzed the country’s abortion debate Thursday by saying he would defy the majority of his party to repeal a ban on terminating pregnancies.
Citing the “cruel inflexibility and unintended consequences” of the ban, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he would support expanding access to abortion, despite his concern for the “unborn.”
Martin is one of the country’s political heavyweights, and his remarks capped two days of emotional parliamentary debate about Ireland’s abortion law, in which there was clear momentum for a referendum to change it, as early as May or June. His remarks in the lower house seize the political initiative from Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of the Fine Gael party, who has yet to make his views clear, and dodged questions on the issue this week in Strasbourg.
The lawmakers are slated to vote in March on whether to hold the referendum, but the outcome seems all but certain.
If a vote takes place, it could overturn one of the final bastions of Irish exceptionalism in Europe. Along with Poland and Malta, Ireland is among Europe’s last holdouts in banning abortion in most circumstances.
In practical terms, however, the EU’s right to free movement (as well as contraband mail-order pills) already make abortion a reality for Irish women.
Martin stressed that was now an inescapable fact. “Nothing we say or do here could make Ireland a country without abortion,” he said.
Catherine Connolly, an independent lawmaker from Galway, had earlier insisted it was time to end the ban which forced Irish women to “come back bleeding through airports … It is time to treat this society as a secular society.”
If Irish voters do overturn the ban, it would be the latest step in a whirlwind period of social change in the predominantly Catholic nation. Divorce became legal in the mid-1990s. Two decades later, in 2015, voters backed gay marriage. Now campaigners are gearing up for a referendum to repeal the constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which established an unborn child’s right to life as equal to the mother’s in 1983.
Michael Healy-Rae, an independent, was one of just a handful of parliamentarians who spoke against revisiting the ban.
“I believe that Ireland is special, and I don’t want to see us go down the road … of England, of America, where human life can be so disregarded,” he said during the debate on Wednesday night.
Crossing the sea
The Irish road to abortions has long led to England: More than 270 Irish residents a month had abortions in England and Wales in 2016, according to government statistics. Those figures are actually down substantially since 2001, but only because the abortion pill is growing in popularity. Netherlands-based nongovernmental organizations are a key source of subtly packaged prescriptions meant to slip past Irish customs. The Netherlands is also a fall-back destination. (Irish women can’t just hop north of the border; Northern Ireland has similar restrictions.)
Legally, a pregnancy can be terminated in Ireland only if the mother’s life is at stake. A parliamentary committee last year recommended allowing abortion up to 12 weeks for any reason, and beyond that when the mother’s health is at stake, the fetus has a fatal defect or cases of rape. But before that can be enacted, citizens must scrap the constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
Opponents of the abortion ban repeatedly mocked it as an “Irish solution to an Irish problem” in the parliamentary debates. This sarcastic phrase dates back to an earlier fight over reproductive rights, in 1979. Opponents of a compromise proposal on contraception — which made it available, but only through prescription (including condoms) — mocked the health minister’s claim that it was an Irish solution to an Irish problem. It’s as though the Irish possess “unique aspects of sexuality unknown in other European countries,” one lawmaker said at the time. (Successive liberalizations have since brought Ireland’s contraception policies into the mainstream.)
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader, offered a republican rationale for repeal: The numbers of women traveling to the U.K. are “an English solution to an Irish problem,” he said Wednesday.
Other repeal backers said it was time to follow the rest of Europe: Alice Mary Higgins, a senator, argued that Italy and Turkey liberalized abortion laws without seeing increases in the procedure. (Though Italy is also an example of how religious traditions die hard: Conscientious objection means it can be hard to find a doctor willing to perform the procedure.)
Ireland faces external pressure to change its laws. A U.N. panel in June said Ireland violated the human rights of a woman who had to travel to the U.K. to abort a fetus with a likely fatal condition — a year after the government paid €30,000 in a similar case.