The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.

Constitution of Ireland, Article 40.3.3° (the Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments)

Ireland has come a long way in the past couple of decades. It’s been so good to watch the change happening. In just the last few years we’ve seen self-declaration for gender introduced by law, and marriage equality passed by a thumping majority in a referendum. Now, following the Citizens Assembly recommendations and the work of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment last year, as well as decades of campaigns, the Government has given the go-ahead for a constitutional amendment bill, with a proposed referendum date in May, to repeal the 8th (and 13th and 14th) amendment quoted above, and legalise abortion.

I wasn’t going to say anything about this, for a couple of reasons including that I didn’t think it was my place to, but I’ve come to think that everyone should speak out on this.

So, here goes.

Growing up as I did in Catholic Ireland, this issue has been a difficult one for me. Although I haven’t been religious since I was a teenager, it’s hard to shake the brainwashing that comes with a Catholic education. I’m now a scientist, and my instinct is to look to science for answers, but the answers aren’t very clear here. The anti-abortion view holds that life begins at birth, and that it’s wrong to end that life. That doesn’t have to be a religious position, and it’s hard to scientifically define where life starts.

Birth is a nice clear dividing line – except it’s not, because there’s not really much difference 5 minutes before or 5 minutes after birth. Conception is a nice clear dividing line too, except it’s not really either, because there’s not a huge difference between a fertilised egg and the separate egg and sperm. It’s still just one cell, and it doesn’t always get implanted in the womb. In between the two, there’s really no clear lines at all.

So really, science isn’t going to provide an answer here. Instead, here’s what’s guided my thinking.

1. People have literally died because of this.

That’s just wrong.

2. Nobody has an abortion for fun. They do it because they feel they have no choice.

3. Banning abortion hasn’t stopped Irish people having abortions. They just go to England, or more recently order pills online, which are then taken without medical supervision.

In short: the eighth amendment and the laws under it are a joke, which don’t prevent abortion, but do prevent people who are going through a very difficult time from having the medical attention they need, either at home in Ireland, or in many cases, at all.

Believe what you want about abortion, but that’s beyond ridiculous. We’re sweeping a problem under the carpet, pretending it doesn’t exist by sending it abroad, and hurting people in the process? This has to change.

Many seem willing to concede to allowing abortion on the grounds of rape, incest, fatal abnormality etc. The expert testimony to the Citizens Assembly and the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment (which absolutely helped shape my opinion, and I highly recommend you read the reports if you are debating this issue and haven’t yet) make very clear that such grounds, are simply not practical in reality, due to the difficulty of proving rape or incest.

Indeed, we’re having a very vivid demonstration of that right now, with the trial of the Ulster Rugby players accused of raping a girl:

It’s also increasing the trauma for the victims.

Mental health grounds are similarly problematic.

So, it seems clear that, especially given the lack of clear dividing lines, it’s simply not possible to legislate around all of them. This is not a black and white issue. There are so many potential variables in the circumstances, this has to be a matter for individual decision. So, why not try the shocking idea of trusting doctors and trusting people who are pregnant?

No matter what laws follow the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, nobody is going to be forcing anyone to have an abortion, and if you don’t want one, don’t have one.

miniature flags

For me, the laws put in place after repeal of the Eighth should be based on the following principles:

  1. Trust women.
  2. Trust people who are pregnant.
  3. Trust doctors.
  4. Nobody should be forced to travel to England.
  5. Nobody should be forced to order a pill online.
  6. Nobody should be feeling suicidal.
  7. There should be no repeat of Ann Lovett, or Savita Halappanavar, etc.

Having paid attention to the Citizens Assembly and Joint Committee, I am more than comfortable to go with their recommendations, which I think meet all these conditions.

Will Repeal pass? I think it will; polling shows a majority in favour, and although referendum polls often swing back towards ‘no change’ in the final days, I think there’s enough strength of opinion behind this one.

The danger is that some people will conflate the Repeal with the subsequent laws, and although they would favour repeal, they may vote against as they are not comfortable with the 12-weeks unrestricted limit proposed. However, I think a solid favour was done to the repeal campaign this week by the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney TD, who opposes the 12-week unrestricted period, but favours repeal.

Having such a high-profile figure come out with an opinion like this might muddy the waters enough that people will stop conflating the repeal vote with the 12-week limit.

I’m obviously hopeful that the 12-week limit will be legislated for, but getting repeal passed by referendum is clearly the most important thing right now. But I think Ireland might just make the right decision on this one.

Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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