This week, Ireland made international headlines as the governing political party announced a date-range for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, the provision which recognizes a fetal right to life, and places it on an equal footing to the right to life of the woman carrying the fetus. The move wasn’t a surprise to Irish voters – the referendum had been promised by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar since his election last June, and comes after decades of protest and organization by a multitude of activist groups, protesting what they view as an archaic, unworkable and agency-destroying constitutional provision that has led to the exporting of abortion care for Irish woman to the UK and Netherlands, and the deaths of women in Ireland. The implications of the Eighth Amendment for access to abortion care are obvious enough – it is illegal in almost all cases. Less prominent has been the pronounced effect that this constitutional ban on abortion has had for medical treatment and care in pregnancy, where the doctor involved is, constitutionally speaking, treating two patients with equal rights to life.
The only scenario in which an abortion in Ireland is legally permissible is in cases where the woman’s life is at risk from the continuance of the pregnancy. In all other cases, including cases where the fetus is non-viable, where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or where the fetus will risk the health of the woman, but not her life, abortion is illegal. Criminal punishment for illegally procuring an abortion runs to a prison term of 14 years, which includes doctors who provide illegal treatment. Women who can afford it travel to the United Kingdom to avail of abortion services there, but doctors in Ireland cannot legally refer their patients to clinics in the UK, even in cases where continuing the pregnancy risks the health of the woman. It is unknown how many women have ended a pregnancy with illegal, imported abortion pills.