#Repealthe8th: One Year On

It is now almost a year since the people of Ireland repealed the 8th Amendment, and just over five months since abortion has been lawfully available in Ireland.

Under the new law, pregnant people can access abortion without restriction as to reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and after that where there is a risk of serious harm to health, risk to life, or diagnosis of a condition that means the foetus is likely to die before or shortly after birth. A government-funded helpline and website provides confidential advice to people seeking information about which GPs provide abortion care. Abortion care is free, and primarily provided through general practice. It is never a crime for a pregnant person to have an abortion.

One year on from repeal, abortion is now free, safe, legal, and local for a considerable number of people in Ireland.

However, problems remain.

Within the first 12 weeks, women must wait three days between the dating of their pregnancy being confirmed by a doctor and accessing abortion. Mandatory waiting periods have no medical purpose. They make life more difficult for many, including people without local providers, in abusive and controlling relationships, without independent means of transport.

Many women and girls continue to import abortion medication from reputable providers and to self manage their abortions at home, preferring this to the paternalistic approach mandated by the legislation. If someone assists them to do this—by ordering the pills, for example—they commit a serious criminal offence.

After 12 weeks the limitations on abortion provision are significant, and many pregnant people who need abortion care cannot access it. It is still a serious offence for a doctor to provide an abortion outside the terms of the Act. In spite of political promises to ensure ‘safe zones’ around places where abortion care is provided, we are still waiting for the legislation that will do that.

Thus, while there has been significant progress in Ireland, much remains to be done to make sure that access to abortion is regulated in a way that accords with best international practice. In addition, neither the political discourse nor the law properly recognise that, following repeal, pregnant people have constitutionally protected rights, such as the rights to privacy and bodily integrity, that may be violated by overly restrictive laws, or failures to ensure that women can safely access abortion care locations.

Importantly, women and girls living in Northern Ireland can access abortion under the new Irish law. However, to do so they must pay a significant amount of money (over £400) and travel twice to the Republic of Ireland—once for the pregnancy dating, and once (three days later) to access abortion care. This is simply not practical for most people, and it certainly does not make up for the continuing failure to provide abortion care ‘at home’ for people in Northern Ireland.

Women, girls and pregnant people in Northern Ireland have fewer rights to reproductive autonomy than people living anywhere else in the UK and Ireland.

The Abortion Act 1967 does not apply to Northern Ireland. Abortion is legal only in extremely limited circumstances, and even then it is difficult to access. People who important abortion medication run the risk of being prosecuted, and prosecution is pursued.

Because the Assembly has not sat for two years, there is no Northern Irish legislature capable of changing the law. The United Nations continues to affirm that the status quo results in human rights violations for people in Northern Ireland.

The UK government has so far refused to remedy this through legislation, or even to decriminalise abortion across the UK (by repealing s.s. 58 and 59 of theOffences against the Person Act 1861) so that willing medics could safely provide care, and women could self manage their abortions using safe abortion medication.

Although everyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to both Irish and UK citizenship, all women and girls there experience reproductive inequality, unable to access abortion care on an equal basis in the Republic of Ireland, and left without access to free, safe, legal and local abortion care by politicians in both Stormont and Westminster.

The last year has been one of significant progress in reproductive rights on the island of Ireland, but there is much left to do both on both sides of the border before those rights are fully protected, and reproductive justice becomes a reality for all pregnant people in Ireland.  

Professor Fiona de Londras and Máiréad Enright - Birmingham Law School.

Read more about their research on reforming abortion law