By: Hilary Deignan, PHRGE Fellow at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy in Galway, Ireland
Like many Massachusetts natives, I have long-identified with an Irish culture I knew little about. Growing up on Cape Cod I proudly wore green ribbons in my hair on St. Patrick’s day with a plastic pin that had a green leprechaun hat with a big gold buckle and said “Kiss me I’m Irish” in rainbow-colored bubble-print.
My grandmother would decorate her table with green-tinted carnations vased with babies breath, her grandmothers hand-made lace linens, and water glasses that looked like diamonds to my eyes. She would serve corned beef and cabbage with parsley sauce and every kind of mustard you could imagine and she let the kids drink her usually off-limits Polar Orange Dry. I would boast to my classmates about how much I loved corned beef and I would wear my pin for weeks, clipped on my jacket like a badge.
When I had the opportunity to come to Galway, the very city my family left during the famine long ago, it became not only a journey to investigate the interplay between human rights, disability and reproductive rights, but it also became a trip home.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, I walked three miles in gale force winds and torrential rain to arrive for my first day at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, housed on the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus. I would later learn that this was a rugged thing to do, but at the time I just thought – this must be Irish weather.
My work in Galway had an immediacy I have not experienced working in the U.S. legal setting, with my research objectives changing drastically in response to new legislation, policies and shifts in focus. Fore Ireland, the beloved homeland of so many Americans; the tragically beautiful land of green mountains and Connemara ponies; of buskers on street corners and fiddlers on pub stools; this country that values charity and music, poetry and education; this Ireland still has some work to do catching it’s laws up with its generous moral standards.
When I first arrived, every paper and news show spoke to the imminence of a referendum to the Constitution of Ireland that would repeal Article 40.3.3, commonly referred to as the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. This is the Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1983, that ultimately makes abortion not only illegal, but also unconstitutional in Ireland.
Because of this, Ireland presently has the most restrictive abortion laws in the European Union and under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act of 2013, only allows legal abortions for women who are at immediate risk of loss of life or who face a real and substantial risk of loss of life whether from physical illness or from suicide.
As a result of this strict criteria and the competing “right to life” for the mother and the unborn, there has been uncertainty in the medical field about providing (or not providing) treatment to a pregnant woman when the result could injure the fetus. Examples of this include: whether a medical provider can perform an abortion on a woman who lacks capacity to consent to an abortion and who has a real and substantial risk of loss of life without an abortion, and determining whether it is lawful to allow a woman who retains consent to refuse treatment that would harm the fetus in it’s refusal (such as a blood transfusion).
Currently, most guidance documents and professional organizations encourage their physicians to obtain legal advice to determine whether they need a High Court Order before providing care for woman in these, and similar situations. As a result, women are not always getting the care they need in a timely and dignified manner. For more information, see this timeline illustrating the development of some of the important abortion law in Ireland.
While Ireland remains a country with strong ties to the Catholic church, public opinion is changing and people are now calling for the government to protect the lives of women. Graffiti and flyers calling for the repeal of the 8th Amendment are commonplace and it is not unusual to see a group of women marching the streets calling for abortion rights. In the recent election, this was one of the central issues to voters.
While Ireland will likely not offer abortion on demand in the near future, I believe that it is only a matter of time before the country expands access to abortion in select circumstances. I admire the people of Ireland’s willingness to reconsider their past values and norms and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to bare witness to the process.
As for me, I am back in the States now, proudly displaying my Irish heritage still/again with my new Claddaugh ring and my Aran wool sweater, missing the city on the sea with it’s Christmas markets and fish and chip shops, and the music on the streets.