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Abortion Rights Campaign at March for Choice, 2018
Abortion Rights Campaign at March for Choice, 2018via Facebook

Ireland’s bill to legalise abortion has finally passed all stages

Activists are celebrating the historic moment, while continuing to call for important amendments

On Thursday (December 14), Ireland’s parliament passed its first bill to legalise abortion, following the victorious referendum earlier in the year.

The Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018 passed by 27 votes to five in the Seanad (Irish Senate), and will now be signed into law by the Irish president, Michael D Higgins. This law will now provide abortion services and care for pregnant people up to 12 weeks, and in cases where there is a risk to the life and health of the person, and where there is fatal foetal abnormality.

The bill comes after a historic referendum vote in May this year that saw 66 per cent of people vote to repeal the archaic eighth amendment, which gave fetuses the same right to live as those carrying them.

“On this emotional and historic day, my thoughts are of Savita and all of the women in crisis our laws have abandoned – never again!” senator Catherine Noone tweeted, referring to Savita Halappanavar, a Galway woman who died of sepsis after her request for an abortion was denied. Her death galvanized a wave of pro-choice activists to push for change to the legislation surrounding abortion care.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called it a “historic moment”. Together for Yes, the official campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, described repeal as a “truly momentous day”.

While the new legislation on abortion ensures that many people in Ireland will have access to services, activists have voiced concern about flaws in the bill. Amnesty International says there are still “barriers to women accessing timely care”, warning of the “potentially high and am ambiguous threshold” around wording like “serious harm” to the life of the pregnant person. Groups like Lawyers for Choice have detailed issues with the three-day waiting period forced upon people who wish to access abortion, and the ambiguous language that means people can still be criminalised.

The three-day waiting period has been described by pro-choice groups as unnecessary, and something that must be revisited. There is also issue with the fact that only the doctor who refers a patient for an abortion can do the procedure. Issues like these make accessing abortion difficult for some of the most marginalized, from those in direct provision to people who live in rural areas.

Orla O’Connor from the National Women’s Council told the Irish Times that other legislation, like policy focused on safety zones around abortion clinics, would have to be thought about. Campaigners continue to call for full decriminalization.

More than 170,000 Irish women and people who can get pregnant have been forced to travel abroad to get access to safe abortion since 1980. According to the Department of Health, over 3,000 people travelled to England and Wales to access abortion last year. Another large but unsubstantiated number took safe but illegal abortion pills to terminate pregnancy.

Last month, the Isle of Man voted to fully decriminalize abortion. Northern Ireland is now the only place in the British Isles to have a near blanket ban – a woman in the North is challenging her prosecution for procuring abortion pills for her then-15-year-old daughter who was in an abusive relationship.