The reality of abortion in Ireland

'Women are forced to travel or break the law so they can access healthcare which should be provided for them here at home'

In the upcoming referendum, we will be asked to remove the Eighth Amendment and allow the Oireachtas to regulate for legal abortion in Ireland. Now the referendum is only a couple of months away, it is important to talk about the reality of abortion in Ireland and the impact the lack of access has on the lives of women and girls.

Every day, at least nine women travel abroad for abortion, and an unknown number of women order abortion pills online. Women are forced to travel or break the law so they can access healthcare which should be provided for them here at home. This comes at a great emotional and financial cost and causes unnecessary pain and suffering.

The current law, as of 2013, states that abortion is legal in Ireland only when there is a substantial risk to the life of the pregnant person. This makes doctors uncertain of what care they can and cannot legally provide to patients. If we vote Yes to removing the Eighth Amendment, doctors can give women and girls the care they need without fear of breaking the law. The legal changes which will most probably be made following repeal are that abortion would be provided, if needed, up to the 12th week of pregnancy - and after 12 weeks if there is a risk to the health or life of the woman, or in cases of a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

As women in Ireland currently have to travel to access abortion, they tend to have abortions later than women who live in Britain. When women are able to access abortion, they do so as early as possible. For example, in the US, 92 per cent of abortions happen within the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. Making abortion care available in Ireland would mean abortions are carried out earlier.

It should be noted that abortions carried out after 24 weeks are extremely rare and usually in tragic circumstances, as when there’s a serious risk to the life of the woman or a devastating diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. In tragic cases such as these, when pregnancies are terminated beyond the 30th week of pregnancy in countries where this is legal, the termination usually involves an induction of labour, or a caesarean section where appropriate. These are medical decisions and should be made by doctors and their patients.

Banning abortion does not reduce the number of abortions - it just makes them unsafe. Statistically, banning abortion does not reduce the need for abortion care. Current evidence suggests abortion rates are higher in places where abortion is illegal or restricted. Furthermore, numbers indicating the true rate of abortion in Ireland are not available, because although we have data on the number of women who travel to access abortion in Britain and elsewhere, the number who do so illegally at home remains uncertain. The main thing we can do to reduce the number of abortions is to provide comprehensive sex education and free, universal access to a variety of contraceptive methods. Doing this reduces the overall rate of unintended pregnancies, and thereby reduces the rate of abortions.

More than 50 per cent of women who require an abortion were using contraception when they became pregnant. Even the most effective methods of contraception fail sometimes. Women who use contraception can still have unintended pregnancies, and some of these women will decide that having an abortion is the right decision for them. It is important that access to abortion be available if contraception fails for these women.

Abortion carries significantly less risks than continuing a pregnancy, and is safe when it is carried out by a trained medical professional in a healthcare setting. Where abortion is illegal, it can be unsafe as it is unmonitored and unregulated. Currently, women in Ireland who have an abortion (via the importation of illegal pills, for example ) are liable to a 14-year prison sentence.

Making abortion illegal makes it accessible only to those who can travel, and those who cannot afford to do so, or are unable to do so, take unnecessary risks to avail of what should be a safe part of women’s reproductive healthcare. Should the Eighth Amendment be repealed, current legal discussions indicate that abortion pills, which are on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines, will be made available via GPs, meaning women can access safe, medical abortions in a supportive, community-care, setting.

The majority of women who have had abortions say it was the right decision for them. Some women do regret their abortions, but statistically we know that, overwhelmingly, what women find traumatising or damaging to their mental health in a crisis-pregnancy situation, is being forced to remain pregnant or forced to travel to access healthcare, or forced to continue a pregnancy and give a baby up for adoption.

Women should be supported to make the right decision for them and their families. Repealing the Eightt Amendment will simply allow the State to mirror the healthcare of other European countries where abortion is part of reproductive healthcare and women are supported in whatever decision they make.

The Eighth Amendment has a negative impact on maternal health and wellbeing in Ireland. Despite claims to this effect, Ireland is not one of the safest places to give birth. In 2005, the WHO reported that there was just one maternal death per 100,000 births. Four years later, the Maternal Death Enquiry Ireland, carried out by the WHO, found there were roughly eight maternal deaths per 100,000, which is in line with statistics expected for any developed country. Providing safe, legal abortion services has been shown to reduce maternal death rates and will make Ireland a safer place for pregnant women.

Abortion is another aspect of women's reproductive care and should be viewed as such in order to provide compassionate, safe services for women and pregnant people in Ireland. Voting Yes is an important step to making this a reality.

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