Although the referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland this month does not directly affect Northern Ireland, campaigners on both sides of the debate here see major significance in the outcome of the poll.
The Eighth Amendment of the Republic’s Constitution says that unborn children and their mother are to be valued equally.
However, a referendum on repealing it will be held on May 25, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar among those calling for repeal.
Currently abortions are only allowed in the Republic of Ireland when the life of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland holds a similar legal position while abortions in Great Britain are legal for a wide range of reasons.
An opinion poll last month by the Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI suggests 63% of voters could be in favour of repeal with 37% opting for the status quo.
It is estimated over 3,500 women could be leaving the south each year for abortions. Campaigners are seeking unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.
There have already been five referendums in the Republic related to the issue, the first in 1983.
Several cases have provoked debate, including that of Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, who died giving birth to a baby son alone in 1984 in Co Longford.
Another controversial case was that of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who died from sepsis after being told she could not have an abortion in University Hospital in Galway in October 2012.
But Nola Leach, chief executive of UK Christian public affairs charity CARE, asked if the Republic of Ireland really wishes to follow the example of Britain.
“The laws on abortion in Ireland have always been framed in a way that provides the best possible outcome for both the mother and child, balancing their needs so that one is not ignored to the detriment of the other,” she said.
“Nearly 200,000 abortions take place in the UK every year – that’s around 17 per every 1,000 women. This figure is among the highest in Western Europe, which has a much lower average of only around 6.5 per 1,000. There have also been over nine million abortions since the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced. Is this the example the Republic of Ireland wants to follow?”
A recent study by Northern Ireland pro-life alliance ‘Both Lives Matter’ verified by the Advertising Standards Authority, showed that there were an estimated 100,000 people alive today because of Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion, she said.
She added: “The Republic of Ireland has a great opportunity to vote in favour of keeping its life-affirming laws at the heart of its society this May.”
The Irish government has continued to neglect to research or plan how this could affect life north of the border, and this “must urgently be fixed” she added.
Only last year the Belfast Court of Appeal ruled that Northern Ireland’s conservative abortion law is not incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights, she said, while the Northern Ireland Assembly has also recently voted against relaxing abortion legislation.
What the south really needs is “better and well-funded support services” for women with crisis pregnancies, she added.
‘Women in both states are harmed by restrictions’
But Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International campaigns manager for Northern Ireland, says women in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have been harmed by legislative restrictions on abortion.
On May 25 the Republic of Ireland will have the opportunity to repeal the Eighth Amendment, demonstrate that it is a country which “respects and promotes the rights of women and girls – and finally put right a historic wrong” she said.
“It has taken 35 years, seven governments, a European Court of Human Rights ruling, the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, grave harm to countless other women, Ireland being repeatedly hauled before the United Nations, a massive public campaign, a Citizens’ Assembly, and a special Joint Oireachtas Committee to get us to this referendum. This will be a significant moment in Ireland’s history.”
It is a different state now to the one which voted the Eighth Amendment into place, she said.
“Women in both jurisdictions on this island have been harmed by legislative and/or constitutional restrictions on their healthcare. It is vital that no woman or girl on this island is left behind. The UK government is ultimately responsible to ensure that women’s right to abortion is upheld. We urge them to urgently legislate for change (in NI) so that, in a mere matter of months, women are not being forced to board trains to RoI as well as planes to the rest of the UK for healthcare to which they are entitled.”
‘Nothing less than full denial of humanity of unborn will be enough’
Dawn McEvoy of Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, however, said the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s “life affirming” laws on abortion have made them both the target of “extreme” abortion campaigners.
Ireland north and south stand alone together in Europe “holding fast to the principle of human rights legislation which is to protect equally the right to life of every human being and not discriminate regardless of things such as age, health, ability or gender” she said.
“The European Convention on Human Rights has said abortion laws on this island strike a fair, proportional and legitimate balance, catering for the rights of women and unborn children. If a woman’s life is at risk there is provision for legal, and safe abortions. But these cases are few in number. For abortion advocates that is the problem.
“Unlike Amnesty International and others, we start from the basic truth that there are two lives in existence in every pregnancy and Both Lives Matter.
“Our claim that in Northern Ireland 100,000 people are alive today directly because of our laws was upheld in an independent investigation. But it is these life-affirming and life-saving laws which have made us a target for some groups and individuals who are committed to an extreme abortion agenda.”
The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the south of Ireland and recent moves by some at Westminster to extend abortion access to women from Northern Ireland, are part of this agenda, she said.
“We cannot be naive. These campaigns are not about ‘the hard cases’, they’re not about women’s lives being at risk. Those cases account for less than two per cent of the 200,000 abortions per year in GB and yet abortion campaigners tell us ‘choice’ is limited, even there, and should be extended. Limits on abortion are not acceptable.”
The groups behind abortion campaigns in both jurisdictions are “fundamentalist activists who are rewriting and redefining existing law and human rights legislation” she said.
“For those pushing for more access to abortion nothing less than the full denial of the humanity of the unborn human being is enough, because nothing less than unrestricted abortion, even up to birth, is enough.”
‘Pragmatic public recognises need to look after women’
But Pro-choice campaigner and academic Goretti Horgan says that public opinion is gradually and pragmatically moving in favour of relaxing abortion legislation in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“The situation is very similar north and south,” she said. “Abortion is not available except to save a woman’s life, but many women are travelling to England for abortions and many more getting [abortion] pills over the internet.
“Public opinion north and south is increasingly that, since abortion is happening anyway, we should look after those women here at home.”
She said that 77% of respondents in the 2016 Life and Times Survey agreed that, as far as abortion is concerned, ‘we are just exporting our problems rather than dealing with them’.
She previously contested claims by pro-life groups in Northern Ireland that 100,000 lives have been saved by the conservative legislation here.
Women who travel to England for abortion normally give an English home address, so estimating their number is very difficult, she said, but Both Lives Matter had underestimated the number of women who travelled there for the procedure by some 40,000, she said.
“The World Health Organisation has said that abortion levels are much higher in jurisdictions where it is illegal, as people panic and don’t think about any other options.”
The Advertising Standards Authority upheld the 100,000 figure as accurate after complaints.