The referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, which was a ban on abortion in almost all circumstances, took place on May 25 2018. One year on, Galway Pro-Choice spoke to the Galway Advertiser on what has changed, and why it believes there is still a need for pro-choice campaigning in Ireland.
In response to the referendum, the Government enacted The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy ) Act 2018, with the new law coming into effect on January 1 2019. This means abortion is now available in certain circumstances. A pregnant person can request an abortion up to 12 weeks (81 days gestation ) on request. After this point, an abortion can be carried out if the pregnancy is causing a risk to the life of the mother, if there is a risk to the mother's health, or if there is a fatal condition affecting the foetus.
While Galway Pro-Choice has called the Act "a sea change for the country", it says abortion has still not been completely decriminalised and the legal access the act provides, remains in the form of "exceptions carved out of a criminal framework". The group argues that this criminalisation "creates a chilling effect" on medical providers and harms those who need abortion by "stigmatising them, threatening them with prosecution and imprisonment, driving them underground, and violating their rights to health and life".
Stephanie Durney of Galway Pro-Choice says the "fear of prosecution" should not be attached to those accessing care and those providing it, adding: "Abortion is healthcare and should be regulated under health statutes and codes."
Access for all?
Ms Durney also points out that many people still have to travel to Britain, and elsewhere, to access abortion services, and that this should cause the Government to revisit the current legislation.
'Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of people accessing abortion care. We feel very strongly that they should be supported in their decisions, not harassed and shamed. There is still a great deal of shame attached to abortion; something we feel has been perpetuated by the current legislation.'
"Many still have to travel to access abortion services and I don’t believe this is what people voted for one year ago," says Ms Durney. "It will continue to present a barrier to care going forward. We are also worried about some of the advice being provided by some pro-life crisis pregnancy agencies. We would encourage people to only visit the Government's My Options website, and seek relevant counselling and advice available when trying to make decisions regarding abortion.”
Suzi Coombs, also of Galway Pro Choice, points out that those from marginalised groups and disabled people also face barriers to accessing care, as do women living in rural areas. "We are still seeing low numbers of GPs providing this service," she says. "As such there is an extra barrier to care for women, especially for those living in rural Ireland."
Northern Ireland remains the only part of Ireland (and the only part of the UK ) where abortion services remain illegal. Liberalising the abortion laws in the North is supported by Sinn Féin, the SDLP, and Alliance, and a majority of citizens according to most polls. Despite this, the DUP remains implacably opposed. Ms Coombs says campaigning for "free, safe, legal and truly accessible abortion care across the island of Ireland" will continue, and that pro-choice groups in the Republic will "stand in solidarity" with Alliance for Choice in the North.
Last week, a majority of Galway city councillors supported a motion calling for legislation to make it illegal for protestors to interfere with or harass a person outside health care facilities when accessing or providing termination of pregnancy.
Galway Pro-Choice is among the groups calling for such exclusion zones around GP’s offices and hospitals, and Ms Durney says "urgent action" needs to be taken by the Government on this.
“Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of people accessing abortion care," she says. "We feel very strongly that they should be supported in their decisions, not harassed and shamed. There is still a great deal of shame attached to abortion; something we feel has been perpetuated by the current legislation. You either trust women and their choices, or you don’t."
Ms Coombs says repealing the Eighth is "a massive step forward" in women's rights in the State, but that Ireland has "a long way to go until we live in a country in which we are all treated equally, and without discrimination".
She says: "There has been a major push-back in women’s reproductive rights across the world, most recently in Alabama. However, we would urge people to take a look closer to home, and the incredibly limited access available in Northern Ireland. We will do all we can to support our sisters in the North.”
Galway Pro-Choice has launched an abortion escort service, in which a trained volunteer will accompany a pregnant person to an abortion and offer moral support. This initiative can be accessed via GPC's phone line of 087 - 389794.