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The story behind Ireland’s abortion ban and its reversal | Top countries

Now that the United States Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in the United States, the nation could find itself on a path similar to that taken by the Irish people from 1983 to 2018.

Abortion was first prohibited in Ireland by what was known as the Offenses Against the Person Act 1861. This law became part of Irish law when Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1922. In the early 1980s, some Catholic anti-abortion campaigners took notice of the liberalisation. abortion laws in other western democracies and feared the same could happen in Ireland.

Various Catholic organizations, including the Irish Catholic Physicians Guild, St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society and the St. Thomas More Society, have banded together to form the Pro Life Amendment campaign. They began promoting the idea of ​​making Ireland a model anti-abortion nation by enshrining a ban on abortion not just in law but in the national constitution.

As a result of this effort, a constitutional referendum was passed in 1983, ending a bitter campaign in which only 54% of eligible voters voted. Ireland’s Eighth Constitutional Amendment “recognizes the right to life of the unborn and [gave] with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”.

Photos: Roe v. Wade reversed

This religiously-motivated anti-abortion measure is similar to religiously-based anti-abortion laws already in effect in some US states, including Texas, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, and Kentucky, which limits coverage for abortion through private health insurance.

What has happened in the 35 years since the referendum was passed in Ireland has been a battle to legalize abortion. It included several court cases, proposed constitutional amendments and intense advocacy, ending in 2018 with another referendum, re-amending the Irish constitution to legalize abortion up to 12 weeks gestation.

Consequences in real life

Even before 1983, people who lived in Ireland and wanted a legal abortion were already traveling to England on what was called the “abortion trail”, as abortion was also criminalized in Northern Ireland. Following the Eighth Amendment, a 1986 Irish court ruling declared that even abortion counseling was prohibited.

A key test of abortion law came in 1992. A 14-year-old rape victim, who became pregnant, told a court she was considering suicide because she was forced to wear the her rapist’s baby. The judge ruled that the threat to her life was not so great as to warrant allowing the abortion. This decision prohibited her from leaving Ireland for nine months, effectively forcing her to carry her pregnancy to term.

On appeal, a higher court ruled that the young woman’s suicidal thoughts were in fact threatening enough to warrant a lawful dismissal. But before she could have an abortion, she had a miscarriage.

The case prompted attempts to pass three more amendments to the Irish constitution. One, declaring that suicidal intentions did not constitute grounds for abortion, failed. The other two were passed, allowing Irish people to travel for abortions and allowing the dissemination of information about legal abortion in other countries.

Emergency treatment

Even with these adjustments, the Eighth Amendment sometimes restricted the ability of medical professionals to provide patients with life-saving care during a pregnancy-related emergency.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, 31, 17 weeks pregnant, checked herself into a hospital in Galway, Ireland. The doctors there determined that she was having a miscarriage. However, since the fetus still had a detectable heartbeat, it was protected by the Eighth Amendment. Doctors could not intervene – in legal terms, end her life – even to save the mother. She was therefore admitted to the hospital for pain management while waiting for the miscarriage to unfold naturally.

This was probably not the only time someone suffered, or even died, as a result of having an abortion refused in Ireland. But the publicity surrounding the case has sparked a new wave of activism aimed at repealing the Eighth Amendment. In 2013, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was signed into law, which did not completely repeal the Eighth Amendment, but legalized abortions that would protect the life of the mother.

It is estimated that around 170,000 people came from Ireland to seek a legal abortion between 1980 and 2018.

A woman is sitting with ultrasound images
Thousands of women across the United States, including Hevan Lunsford of Alabama, are forced to travel for abortions due to state restrictions.AP Photo/Vasha Hunt

A similar situation in the United States

As a professor of social work who studies reproductive health care, I see many parallels between what happened in Ireland between 1983 and 2018 and the current situation in the United States.

In the United States, people already travel long distances, often to other states, in a manner similar to the Irish abortion trail.

In the United States and Ireland, people who need help paying for abortions are mostly single people in their twenties who already have an average of two children, according to a study I conducted with some funds from abortion, which are charities that help people often cover unaffordable abortion costs.

Unlike the United States, Ireland is moving away from political control over privacy. Now that Roe has been reversed and abortion may be illegal in much of the United States, pregnant women could face forced pregnancy, suffering and even death – as was the case. cases in Ireland before 2018.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 16, 2022.