January marks the first month women in Ireland can receive free, legal abortions in the country, months after voters chose to repeal a decades-long ban on the procedure.
Clinics are still preparing, the Guardian reports, as Irish president Michael Higgins signed the regulation of termination of pregnancy bill into law on December 20. However, at least nine of the state’s 19 maternity units and several outside clinics are planning to open this month. The government has also created “safe access zones” which ban anti-abortion protesters from harassing patients and staff at clinics and has set up a hotline to direct patients to local abortion services.
“When a women picks up the phone and looks for her options there will be many, many locations across the country where [she] can access this service,” health minister Simon Harris told Sky News.
Most forms of abortion have been illegal in Ireland since 1861. After the United States legalized abortion in 1973, fearful Catholic groups lobbied to codify anti-abortion measures into the Constitution. In 1983, two-thirds of voters supported the Eighth Amendment, which gave equal rights to the unborn and made abortion illegal without any exceptions. In 2013, after Savita Halappanavar died from a septic miscarriage because doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy, Ireland lifted the ban on abortion in cases where the mother’s life was in danger. The near-total ban remained the “most restrictive and punitive in the entire developed world,” according to the Washington Post, noting that “Those who sought or provided abortions in Ireland faced up to 14 years in prison.”
In May, however, two-thirds of Irish voters supported a referendum repealing the eighth amendment. While the referendum is historic and critical to upholding human rights, pro-choice groups argue that it continues to restrict abortion access by limiting the procedure past 12 weeks and by instituting mandatory waiting periods. The Guardian reports:
Under the new system, GPs will provide abortions to women up to nine weeks pregnant and hospitals will perform terminations at between nine and 12 weeks. After 12 weeks, abortions will be allowed only in exceptional circumstances. The service will be largely free, with the state paying GPs approximately €400 per patient.
As the rollout nears, all sides are apprehensive. Pro-choice groups criticised a mandatory three-day “cooling off” period for women who request abortions, calling it a sop to anti-abortion activists that lacked any medical basis. They also worry about uncertainty over those seeking abortions after 12 weeks, estimated in about 17% of cases.
“We expect there will be a significant cohort of women who won’t be catered for,” said Murphy. She expected hundreds of such cases to end up in British clinics this year.
Access may also be limited because, while abortion is legal now, doctors may be slow to adapt to changes. Responding to surveys that report 43 percent of providers were apprehensive about the changes, Tony Cox, medical director of the Irish College of General Practitioners, told the Guardian, “We believe the majority of members are concerned that the introduction has been rushed, that the referral pathways won’t be in place for a while, but are optimistic that it will settle down and that the media interest will subside, and the 24-hour helpline will work smoothly.”
Ireland’s milestone has renewed hope for activists in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal. “The referendum in the south was really helpful, because you can basically no longer argue that the public don’t support a change in the law,” Emma Campbell, co-chair of abortion advocacy group Alliance for Choice, told the Guardian. “This has been a long fight with a lot of setbacks so we are cautiously optimistic, but I would say more optimistic than we’ve ever been.”
While Ireland inches towards progress, the United States, however, continues to fall backwards to the days of back-alley abortions.
Correction: This article previously misnamed Health Minister Simon Harris as Sam Harris. Jezebel regrets the error.