Ireland’s abortion restrictions are a disgrace. Where’s the EU’s soft power?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A protest for abortion rights held in Brussels in 2016.

This week thousands of Irish people in cities all over the world, including Brussels, will be protesting in solidarity with tens of thousands marching in Dublin for access to abortion, writes John Hyland.

John Hyland is an activist for free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland. He’s on Twitter @JohnHyphen. The protest for abortion rights in Brussels on 28 September takes place at 17:30, starting on Esplanade Cinquantenaire and moving to the Schuman roundabout. More details here.

Ireland has some of the strictest laws on abortion in the EU, allowing terminations only in the case where the pregnant person’s life is literally in danger. People are forced to leave Ireland, at a rate of 12 a day, to access this basic healthcare. The UN Human Rights Committee and the Council of Europe have condemned Ireland’s record on abortion rights.

But why do our EU partners stay silent?

Irish immigrants around the world are protesting because they want to feel connected to the struggle for reproductive rights back home, but also because international attention on Ireland’s failings is needed.

Belgium is home to thousands of Irish people, but also to institutions of the European Union that guarantee so many other rights in its 28 member states, making the protest here particularly important.

Though the European Union doesn’t have legal jurisdiction over its member states’ health policy to the extent that it covers abortion provision, surely this community must have some opinion on the treatment of the human rights of pregnant people by one of its members. And the opinion of others is something that Ireland, as a country and as a people, holds in high regard.

Great embarrassment

Many Irish people living in Brussels, and elsewhere in Europe, have felt the great embarrassment of explaining to new friends or colleagues exactly how strict Ireland’s abortion laws are. The feeling of shame drops through the stomach as the disbelieving questions follow one another.

No one can get an abortion if they want? Not even if they’re very sick? Or very young? What if they’ve been raped? And even if the pregnancy can’t survive? No, no, no. But… is Ireland not part of the EU? To see the shock on the faces of our fellow Europeans, when they hear that pregnant people are treated this way, is a huge source of shame.

The 8th amendment to the Irish constitution guarantees protection to the life of the foetus equal to that of the mother, preventing the parliament from legislating for abortion. Public opinion is the only thing that will change this, as a referendum is required to change the constitution – something the EU knows all too well, as both the Nice and Lisbon treaties require two referendums each.

The Irish government has promised a referendum on the 8th amendment in the first half of next year but the result is not a foregone conclusion. Polling has found that there is appetite for change, but opinions vary hugely on future legislation to replace the almost blanket ban on abortion. The time has come to look to our European neighbours for guidance.

Post-Brexit border relations

Ireland has been exporting 4,000 abortions per year for decades, mostly to the United Kingdom, but also to France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Northern Ireland also prohibits abortion in nearly every case, meaning that those on the island of Ireland have to travel overseas for medical assistance to terminate a pregnancy.

Ireland’s post-Brexit border relations with the UK are another potential obstacle for those in Ireland seeking abortions, especially the most vulnerable.  Those without passports, asylum seekers and homeless people could possibly face additional barriers to travel to the UK in a situation where time is critical.

Irish abortions happen, just mostly not in Ireland. Our European neighbours have picked up our slack for long enough, but we must now call out this unsustainable arrangement for what it is. Ireland often feels forgotten, lost behind a bigger island, and is very susceptible to international attention.

We swelled with pride at being perceived a liberal, modern country as the first in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015, and again this year with the appointment of our first openly gay prime minister, who is also the son of an immigrant.

The same spotlight must be turned on Ireland once again as it prepares to decide whether or not to grant bodily autonomy to half its population.

Now is the time for European solidarity with those in Ireland fighting for reproductive rights that are protected in almost every other EU country. Double standards giving pregnant people control over their bodies in one member state but not another must not be maintained.

The EU is contradicting itself in internal and external human rights policy. The European Union sees itself as a leader of sexual and reproductive health rights in the international community, but why won’t it engage its member states on this? All citizens of the EU must have an equal right to bodily autonomy, this problem can be ignored no longer.

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