The repeal of a flawed law

It was just after six in the evening on Saturday 26 May when it was formally announced that the Republic of Ireland had voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, an amendment that stated abortion was illegal in almost all cases. But in truth, this result had been expected since late on Friday night, when exit polls taken after voting had closed showed an expected landslide victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign.

The exit polls proved correct, and the ‘Yes’ campaign romped home with over two thirds of the vote. The result ended a campaign that had been fraught and divisive, with emotions running high on both sides. But the result also ended a debate that had often focused on the idea of abortion as a whole, rather than whether the Eighth Amendment was actually working as a piece of legislation.

The ‘Save The 8th’ campaign’s Facebook page focuses not on the benefits of the legislation (which would be difficult to find), but rather on the idea that an unborn child is being murdered. A post on 25 May stated implored people to ‘Please VOTE NO today to protect and to SAVE mothers and babies from abortion.’ The language used in an article written by the campaign for the Irish Times is one that emphasises the idea that it is a healthy growing child inside the womb, not a foetus. But that’s what it is, a foetus.

And science hasn’t decided when a foetus becomes a person. Some say it is when you can measure brain activity. Some when there is a heartbeat. Others, and this is where the debate heats up, insist it is at conception. Scientists far more qualified than most of those campaigning in the referendum disagree on when a foetus becomes a person. But no one disagrees that a pregnant woman is a person. And yet the Eighth Amendment stripped pregnant women of their bodily rights.

That was the problem with the argument put forward by those wanting to save the eighth. They focused on the act of abortion itself, an act they see as criminal, as murder. Yet what the debate should have focused on, and what the referendum was actually about, was whether the Eighth Amendment actually serves the people it rules over. It does not.

The Guardian reported in January that an average of eleven women a day make the journey between Ireland and the United Kingdom to have an abortion. This means that more than 200,000 people have completed this journey since 1983. 200,000 women could not get the healthcare they wanted and needed in their home country, so they had to make a journey that made their decision even more difficult. So the notion that the Eighth Amendment is saving a life is flawed. Even if one were to accept that a foetus is an unborn child, the Amendment offers no barrier. It simply puts the women who have made the decision to terminate their pregnancy through more trauma than is required.

Then there is Savita Halappanavar, who died in 2013 after her pregnancy ended in a septic miscarriage. When the miscarriage became inevitable, Halappanavar requested an abortion, but doctors refused, contending that her life was not in danger. It was, and Halappanavar died from cardiac arrest, triggered by her sepsis. Without the Eighth Amendment, Halappanavar would have been legally granted an abortion.

So the Eighth Amendment is flawed, and it is right that the Irish public have overwhelmingly backed its repeal. It does not stop an abortion from happening, it just makes the process more traumatic for those going through it. And when it does stop an abortion, that can have horrific consequences. The ‘Save the 8th’ campaign attempted to shift the debate from the Amendment to abortion and life itself. They did not focus on the actual Amendment, but that’s because it is so damaging its repeal cannot come soon enough.

Photo Credit: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images. 

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