Friday, November 2, 2012

Abortion Laws in Europe

For the past few weeks, another great debate has griped Ireland; the issue of abortion. The debate is not new in Ireland and in fact it has intensified for the past few years. Both camps, the "pro-choice" that supports the practice to be legalized in Ireland and the "pro-life" camp that is strongly opposing it, are fully engaging in it.

Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe that abortion is still illegal. Only Poland and Malta have similar laws. In fact pro-life campaigners mainly from Poland, are trying to gather 1 million signatures and make a petition to the European Parliament to ban abortion all over EU.

The people who are against the legalization of abortion in Ireland, do so because they want to protect the unborn children's rights and keep their country a "safe country for children to be born." The people who campaign for the legalization, want to promote women's rights.

A recent event gave the debate a whole new dimension. A clinic in Northern Ireland decided to allow abortions, making it the very first one to do so in the island of Ireland. The clinic of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland in Belfast decided to be the first sexual and reproductive health center to offer abortion services. Anyone over the age of 16 can access the center, including people from the Republic and services are available by appointment only.

Marie Stopes International, which is a not-for-profit organization, is the UK’s leading provider of sexual and reproductive healthcare services. The main legislative restriction is the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861. Since 1967, the Abortion Act has governed abortion in England, Scotland and Wales but Northern Ireland was excluded, and the 1861 Act still applies there.

In 2009 the Department of Health published a document which, for the first time, provided guidance to health professionals in Northern Ireland on terminating pregnancy.

Last year there were about 1000 women from Norther Ireland and more than 4000 women from the Republic of Ireland traveling to England to end a pregnancy. Now with this new clinic in Belfast, that most likely will change. And of course it reignites the issue of abortion in the Republic. Can Ireland hold on to its conservative attitude towards abortions, since so many Irish women already practice it outside its borders?

Shouldn't we have a common European policy on this issue? With open borders and freedom to move around, what is the point of banning one thing in one state but allowing it in the bordering one? People will just move across the border and get it over there. Besides banning a practice that has been practiced illegally for decades before its legalization in other countries, only leads it to being practiced "underground," with huge cost to women's health. Remember the Vera Drake film?

Perhaps it is a matter of ethics and culture. I wonder why we always have to take it to the extremes. Either a total ban or total uncontrolled freedom! Why can't a woman be able to abort a fetus that she conceived after rape. Why can't a woman  abort a fetus if after medical tests the doctors prove that the newborn baby won't be healthy, mentally or physically. Why must we punish a young girl to become a young inexperienced mother, because she made one mistake in her youth years to have unprotected sex.

But on the other hand, how do we prevent women from having too many abortions? It is not good for their own bodies and it is not ethical to actually kill so many fetuses. I personally say yes to abortions and to the right of women to regulate their own bodies. But equally I want to stop them taking for granted such freedom and use it to satisfy their vanity, or serve their immature lifestyle. Abortion should be the last resort and contraception should be promoted from young age. That is why I find necessary the establishment of sexual education in our schools.

If we speak openly about issues like these both at home and in school, then perhaps young girls won't have to seek for an abortion, once they are taught to be responsible with their bodies. But I think it is cruel to condemn them in a young motherhood, if they make one mistake. Everyone should deserve a second chance.

Recently there was also a case in Poland, another conservative country, of a young girl that won her case against the Polish state. The girl was a victim of rape and she fought for her right to have an abortion in her country. Only to be met with a staunch resistance by the state, but also be harassed and humiliated by anti-abortion campaign groups.

Eventually she won her case and had the abortion, but also the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg awarded her and her mother with a generous lump-sum for damages and the costs of the trial. The Strasbourg court has already twice condemned Poland for failing to ensure the law on this subject.

The Polish girl's case was very similar to a case taken by three Irish women two years ago in which the court also ruled in their favor. So perhaps we do need a pan-European agreement on this issue and countries like Poland and Ireland must comply with the rest of the European states. But also offer an alternative tool to prevent too many abortions taking place and satisfy the more conservatives or skeptics. Sex education I think would be the first line of defense. 

Pro-life campaigning groups are putting pressure on the Irish Government to change its legislation and legalize abortions where necessary at least. Especially when the life of a woman is in danger or the pregnancy is a result of rape. The group Choice Ireland is notably one of them. They use the X-case that rocked Ireland back in the early '90s and then in the early '00s, as a solid argument for their cause.

A teenage girl that was raped and became pregnant, was refused the right by the Irish state to go to England and terminate her pregnancy. Because of that the girl considered suicide to end her misery. The Irish public was appalled by the way this young girl was treated and that sparked demonstrations from both camps on the abortion issue. Since then, the two camps are on the streets demonstrating occasionally. It lead to a referendum that resulted in the freedom to travel outside the State for an abortion to be passed. The freedom to obtain or make available information on abortion services was also passed.

The right to abortion though is still a thorny issue in Ireland. Hopefully both the Irish state and their European counterparts can come into a mutual agreement and respect women's rights as part of their general human rights. I would like to see more involvement by the EU in this issue, even though both in Poland and Ireland, this will be seen as "meddling" in internal state affairs.

Both Irish and Polish women are European citizens and should enjoy the same rights as any other woman in Europe. But in this case, the national politicians seem to be failing women, just to satisfy old, outdated, conservative, Catholic and male dominated doctrines. Isn't it time to move on from them, in the Europe of 2012?

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