In 1983 the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution explicitly recognised the equality of the right to life of the unborn and the mother, and so, by a referendum of the citizens of the state, cemented the illegality of abortion in Ireland. Yet for a number of reasons the question of abortion has remained a serious and unresolved issue in Irish discourse; not least because many women – regardless of the legal implications – have travelled abroad to procure terminations, and in some cases have put their health and their lives at risk.
Real life presents jurisprudence with complexities often beyond the scope of hard and fast legal codes, and by early 1992 the “X case” resulted in a Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of a woman to have an abortion if her life was at risk, and here the definition of risk was found to include the risk of suicide. Nevertheless, the ruling did not permit abortion within Ireland, and so resulted only in the right of a woman to “travel [to England or elsewhere]” for the procedure. Later events have been argued to have rendered the judgement moot in Irish law, and so the right to travel was decided by the 1992 thirteenth amendment.
Various cases put before the European Court of Human Rights have shifted the debate in Ireland from constitutional dogmatism to softer, therapeutic territory; focusing more on the approach which best serves the mother, but lack of legal clarification has led to disaster. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 exposed the flaw in a system in which a therapeutic termination was a medical option, but where – for lack of legal clarification – the medical staff run the risk of a fourteen year custodial sentence. It is much to Ireland’s discredit that Ms. Halappanavar’s death was wholly avoidable.
We are left with the question then, should we repeal the eighth amendment? Ultimately the matter stands or falls on the life and the right to life of the unborn, and this moves the discussion again; away from legal and therapeutic debate and into philosophical ethics – and the questions this raises are many. What is human life, and when does it begin? Does the autonomy and the right to bodily integrity of the pregnant woman supersede the rights of the unborn, or do they imply ownership of the zygote or foetus? Is this a decision which must be left completely in the hands of the individual, or is this a decision for the whole of society? At the present I would like to leave this discussion as a question or a series of questions, allowing for open discussion and further reflection.