Friday 28 October 2016

It's far from clear what would replace Eighth Amendment

Published 27/08/2016 | 02:30

Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins voiced her support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment at this year's Rose of Tralee. Picture Credit: Frank McGrath
Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins voiced her support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment at this year's Rose of Tralee. Picture Credit: Frank McGrath

It was the most political of comments in the most apolitical of settings.

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The Rose of Tralee stage is the last place one would expect the topic of abortion to be raised.

But Sydney contestant Brianna Parkins did just that, sparking much controversy.

Voicing support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, she said: "I think we can do better here in Ireland, it's time to give women a say in their own reproductive rights."

While much of the debate which followed revolved around the suitability of the setting, the appropriateness of the amendment itself will come front and centre this October when the citizens' assembly on abortion begins.

Terminations have been illegal in Ireland since 1861, but the Eighth Amendment, brought in via a referendum in 1983, enshrined the recognition of the right to life of an unborn child in the Constitution.

Since then, there have been some changes to the law.

The passing of two further constitutional amendments in 1992 meant that the prohibition on abortion did not limit the freedom to access information on abortion services or the freedom to travel to other countries where terminations are legal.

Further changes were introduced with the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, which allows for terminations in cases where a woman's life is at risk as a result of their pregnancy or in cases where there is a risk of suicide.

Despite these changes, Ireland still has one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world. Our laws have been criticised by the United Nations, but we are not the only European country where conservative views have held sway.

For example, in Poland, where abortion is available where the woman's life or health is in danger, where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or where the foetus is "seriously malformed", MPs will soon be debating proposals, backed by prime minister Beata Szydlo, to introduce a total ban.

And while the prevailing trend internationally has been towards the liberalisation of abortion laws, there have been exceptions.

At least 11 countries which allow abortion have added restrictions to the circumstances in which it can be performed in the past 20 years.

Majority sentiment in Ireland, if the most recent poll is anything to go by, favours the repeal of the amendment.

If the convention, chaired by Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, ends up recommending a referendum on the amendment, it will set the scene for a much wider debate on what could replace it. That recommendation would be forwarded to an Oireachtas committee and decisions would have to be taken regarding potential new laws. In that scenario, the options likely to be considered would include allowing abortion on demand or allowing abortion for a wider number of reasons than at present. Cases involving rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities spring to mind.

And if abortion on demand is recommended, consideration would have to be given to what caveats should be attached, such as requirements for counselling and specified term limits.

Then there is the question over how any potential changes would be introduced.

Would the people have a say via a further referendum or would it be left to the Oireachtas to legislate?

The answer to any of these questions is not easily arrived at. Countries all over the world have wrestled with these dilemmas and the resulting laws have varied significantly.

In the Netherlands, abortion on demand is legal until the 21st week, but can be performed up to 24 weeks in urgent circumstances, such as a risk to the life of the mother. In Germany, abortion on demand is allowed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy provided the woman agrees to attend counselling. It is only allowed after the 12th week where the life of the woman is in danger or her physical or mental health is threatened by the pregnancy.

Abortion is also allowed in instances of rape, but must be performed within 12 weeks of conception.

Different states in Australia and the US have wildly differing laws. In Queensland, abortion is a crime, but in practice it is considered lawful if carried out to prevent serious danger to a woman's physical or mental health. In Victoria, it is legal up to 24 weeks, Tasmania up to 16 weeks, and up to 14 weeks in the Northern Territory.

Irish Independent

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