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Ireland’s thorny abortion debate

Abortion is currently illegal in the country, except if a pregnant woman's life is in danger. Rights campaigners will be closely watching what changes are put to voters in a referendum on the issue next year.

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Ireland’s thorny abortion debate

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Pro-life and pro-choice activists in Ireland are bracing for a tough fight when the nation votes next year on whether to ease some of the strictest abortion laws in the world.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Tuesday (Sept. 26) proposed to have a standalone referendum in May or June next year that would follow on from the recommendations of an all-party committee examining the issue.

A panel of citizens convened to advise the government on the topic voted overwhelmingly that the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which enshrines an equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, should be changed. Abortion is currently illegal in Ireland except if the mother’s life is clearly endangered.

Campaigners will be closely watching what changes are put to voters.

“The government’s commitment to hold a referendum is welcome, but it must also put forward a proposal for constitutional change which fully respects and protects the human rights of women and girls in Ireland,” said Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.

“Women and girls must also have access to abortion in later pregnancy, as required under international human rights law.”

The citizens’ assembly has recommended that Ireland provide broad access to abortion on request, at least up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and with restrictions beyond. The all-party committee is now considering those recommendations and is due to report to parliament by the end of the year on the referendum and what the future legislation could look like.

“We are worried that the politicians may try and push a question on the ballot that would only allow abortion in exceptions-based cases, for example only in cases of rape or fatal fetal abnormality,” Clare Lanigan, volunteer for Ireland’s Abortion Rights Campaign, told Euronews.

“So we still have to keep pushing, and not assume that just because we have a referendum the fight is over. In fact, in many ways it’s only just beginning.”

Graphic: abortion rights across Europe

Changing mentalities

Ireland became the first country to adopt gay marriage by popular vote in 2015, and Varadkar earlier this year became its youngest and first openly gay prime minister.

But abortion is still a thorny issue. An Ipsos MRBI opinion poll for the Irish Times in May showed that while a majority of people support looser rules in cases of rape or emergency, less than a quarter want terminations to be available on request.

Anti-abortion supporters demand the law remain unchanged, to protect unborn babies.

A complete ban on abortions was lifted in 2013 and terminations are now only allowed if the life of the mother is in danger. For anyone else, including women with nonviable pregnancies, there is no option but to have the baby or break the law. Women convicted of having an illegal abortion face up to 14 years in jail.

Abortion rights advocates say some 4,000 Irish women travel abroad each year, mostly to England, to terminate pregnancies.

The human rights arms of both the United Nations and the Council of Europe have pressed the Irish government to at the very minimum decriminalise abortion and loosen the law to allow for abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape or incest.

Amnesty International has also recently launched a video campaign to repeal Ireland’s eighth amendment.

In the clip, entitled “25 annoying things about about being pregnant,” women laugh about a list of pregnancy woes — such as morning sickness and “cankles” (swollen ankles) — until the music stops, and a woman adds to the list, “When you’re forced to carry a baby that can’t survive out of the womb.” Another says: “When you’re not ready to be a mother.”