Severe, potentially life-threatening bleeding. Grave fetal impairments. Sexually assaulted and suicidal. These are just some of the instances when Irish women have been denied an abortion, described in the damning report Amnesty International released Tuesday. Coming on the heels of Ireland's win for same-sex marriage, the Amnesty report highlights the impact Ireland's draconian abortion ban has had on the some 200,000 women who have left the Emerald Isle to lawfully obtain the procedure since 1971.
"Women and girls who need abortions are treated like criminals, stigmatized and forced to travel abroad, taking a serious toll on their mental and physical health," said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty. "The Irish state can no longer ignore this reality, and the appalling impact it is having on thousands of people every year."
Titled "She's Not a Criminal," the report coincides with Amnesty International's launch of the My Body My Rights campaign in Ireland. Ireland is just one of five European countries that outlaws abortion, but the nation's ban is stricter than most. Equal rights for the unborn is enshrined in the Irish constitution under the Eighth Amendment, and women can only receive a legal abortion if their health, including their mental health, is at risk. Even that is a fairly new rule, approved in 2013 with the Protection of Life During Pregnancy, passed months after Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman living in Ireland, died from complications of a second-trimester miscarriage.
For women who were sexually assaulted, or whose fetuses have severe abnormalities, abortion is still criminalized. More than 3,750 Irish women traveled to the United Kingdom in 2014 to obtain a lawful abortion, according to the latest figures from the U.K. Department of Health, who notes that number may be much higher. It's a slight increase from 2013, which saw an estimated 3,600 Irish women traveling to clinics in England and Wales. Abortion Rights Campaign, an Irish group that advocates for reproductive rights in the Emerald Isle, estimates 12 women travel to the U.K. each day for an abortion.
"Ireland turns a blind eye when women travel abroad for abortions, and is indifferent to the suffering involved," said Amnesty International Ireland Executive Director Colm O'Gorman. "It condemns the weak, poor and vulnerable who cannot travel to become criminals for making decisions about their bodies, decisions which sometimes are a matter of life and death."
A clinic worker named Kally, who works in Liverpool, a popular destination for Irish women seeking abortion, added to Amnesty International that the overseas travel places psychological and economical burdens on women. She said that many times, this duress pushes women to the point of no return.
"We have had women who have traveled ... [and] they’ve been too late in their pregnancy so we couldn’t treat them because they were waiting to save up money to get the treatment," Kally said in the report.
Amnesty International says it costs women an estimated $1,120 to $1,700 to travel to the U.K. for an abortion. In many ways, it's a more affordable price than the alternative: undergoing an illegal abortion in Ireland carries a sentence of 14 years in prison.
While O’Gorman and other Amnesty officials would like to see a total repeal of the Eighth Amendment, there's also the issue of Ireland allegedly violating its new abortion law, crafted to prevent pregnant women like Savita Halappanavar from dying with doctors at their sides. Although Ireland now approves of abortion when a woman's life is at risk, the law carries with it a bundle of red tape that is confusing and cumbersome for many doctors. Doctors, too, risk a hefty fine — about $4,500 — if they perform an abortion outside of the law.
Dr. Peter Boylan, an OB-GYN who formerly served as clinical director of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital, told Amnesty International that the new law has not made it any easier for doctors, who often find their hands tied as their pregnant patients grow sicker. "Under the [current law] we must wait until women become sick enough before we can intervene," Boylan said in the report. "How close to death do you have to be? There is no answer to that."
Another physician, Dr. Peadar O'Grady, added in the report:
In the past if a woman found herself in a situation like Savita Halappanavar they could either call a lawyer, call the media or get on a plane. The only available solution was to get out of the country [Ireland]. The women who are actively bleeding, who have to get on a plane to travel for an abortion, they are like Savita. There is always risk of infection when there is bleeding, that is what happened to Savita.
In addition to changing the law to accommodate patients with complicated pregnancies, Irish activists have also been advocating for legislation that allows abortion in cases of fetal impairment. In these instances, Irish women are still forced to travel abroad to terminate a non-viable pregnancy. If an Irish woman cannot afford to travel, she must carry the pregnancy to full term, even if the fetus has a non-survivable impairment or dies in utero.
This happened to Nicola, who discovered at 19 weeks that her fetus was non-viable. Doctors wouldn't provide her with an abortion, or even induce labor until the fetus had died — risking her to infection and further illness. “Most women are getting scans to make sure their baby is alive. I was getting a scan to see if my baby had died," Nicola said in the report.
Another Irish woman who had a difficult pregnancy, including thoughts of suicide, added to Amnesty International in the report:
The 8th amendment is currently being abused. It is being used to treat women as objects and not as human beings anymore. I would fear for my life to have another child in Ireland.
Abortion rights activists in Ireland are hoping to ride the progressive swell of the Yes campaign, which successfully legalized same-sex marriage last month in a historic nationwide referendum, and repeal the Eighth Amendment in a similar fashion. Yet there's still less support for full abortion access in Ireland than there is for same-sex marriage and the nation's high-ranking politicians, including Prime Minister Enda Kenny, have been firm on their decision to keep Ireland's strict anti-abortion laws intact. Although the predominantly Catholic country has rid itself of the church's influence over the last two decades, Ireland's all-out ban on abortion seems to be one of the last remaining hold-outs of the Catholic Church, which knows its steadily losing ground across Western Europe.
Any move to repeal the Eighth Amendment, or at least amend it to allow abortion in cases of fetal impairment and rape, will have to wait until the next government is in control in 2016, Irish politicians stated last month. Until then, the Irish government is "putting the lives of women and girls at risk every day," Amnesty's O'Gorman said.
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