It was only two decades ago that Ireland decriminalized homosexuality. Yet on May 22, people took to the polls and made Ireland the first country in the world to adopt marriage equality by a popular vote. The people of Ireland did not just make history with their vote to legalize same-sex marriage; they sent a resounding message of support for human rights by voting “yes” by a margin of two to one! When the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Enda Kenny, announced the date of the referendum, he stated that it would illustrate Ireland’s reputation as a tolerant and inclusive nation, and after the vote, he proudly pronounced that Ireland was a “small country with a big message for equality.”
Taoiseach Kenny should speak about the referendum with great pride, as it represents an enormous success for equality and LGBT human rights. But hidden in the shadows of Ireland’s most recent human rights accomplishment is the fact that it still has one of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws and that women in Ireland do not enjoy equal access to their full human rights.
In Ireland, women and girls cannot access safe and legal abortion services. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 (PLDPA) criminalizes abortion with the only exception being if the woman or girl’s life is at “real or substantial” risk. Ireland’s Eighth Amendment to the Constitution protects the fetus’ right to life on an equal footing with a woman’s and its Regulation of Information Act censors abortion-related information—meaning that health care providers are stopped from giving out full information on abortion, for fear of being accused of “promoting” or “advocating” it.
The abortion laws essentially treat women and girls like criminals. Women, health care providers, and anyone who assists them face up to 14 years in prison for violating the PLDPA. Due to the criminalization of abortion in Ireland, an estimated 10-12 women and girls—the majority of them aged between 20 and 34—travel to England for an abortion every day.
As documented in Amnesty’s report on Ireland’s abortion laws, women like Cerys*, who received an abortion after being diagnosed with fatal fetal impairment (the inability of the fetus to survive), described the ordeal as:
“At the moment it is like ‘mission impossible’, that is making light of it, but it is a covert operation, the flights, the times, who can you tell, who can you trust? …thinking about child care [to care for my children while I have to travel] and the money of flying… you feel like a criminal. I am a law-abiding citizen and I felt like I was committing a crime, like I was smuggling drugs across the border. That feeling was horrible.”
So while the Taoiseach paints Ireland as a beacon for equality, the government of Ireland is violating women’s and girls’ rights to life, health, privacy, non-discrimination, and freedom from torture and other ill-treatment.
Ireland is not implementing its international obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. To continue its forward-moving progress, like what we saw on May 22, towards a nation that truly upholds the rights of its people, Ireland needs to change its abortion laws and stop treating women and girls like criminals.
Marriage equality and safe access to abortion are both human rights. Ireland cannot pick and choose which rights it intends to uphold.
Take action: Sign the petition urging the Taoiseach to change its abortion law!
Read the report: She is Not a Criminal: The Impact of Ireland’s Abortion Law
*This woman’s name was changed.