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Does Ireland Think Abortion Is Worse Than Heroin?

Overly harsh drug laws and abortion restrictions both cause unnecessary deaths.

Gabby Bess

Gabby Bess

Photo by William Murphy via Flickr

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was signed into law in Ireland on July 30, 2013. Under the statute, abortion, for the first time, was given clear guidelines pertaining to the circumstances in which the act is legal: when there is a "real and substantial" risk to the mother's life, either by physical illness threat of suicide. The bill was only a tepid victory for the country's women's rights advocates; in Ireland, it remains illegal for a woman to seek an abortion simply because she to decides she does not want to be pregnant. Of the Republic's official stance on abortion, Irish TD (the equivalent of a US Congressperson) Ruth Coppinger said, "Women are being treated as vessels without basic human rights."

On the island, where gay marriage made recent strides despite the Catholic church's stronghold, a woman still has virtually no control over her reproductive health. Abortion has been illegal in Ireland since 1861 under what was called the Offenses Against the Person Act, but in 1983 the government explicitly added an amendment to the Irish constitution to ensure that it stayed that way.

Article 40.3.3, as it's referred to, claims that an unborn fetus has an equal right to life as a pregnant woman. Because of the amendment, fetuses are often appointed their own lawyers in opposition to pregnant women seeking abortions. Anti-abortion activists in Ireland are so staunch that, after falling and suffering "catastrophic" brain damage, a clinically-dead woman was kept on life-support while the state debated whether they should sustain her body because she was pregnant with a 17-week-old fetus.

The perverse logic of [Ireland's abortion laws] means medical conditions due to pregnancy must be allowed become life-threatening before it is legal to terminate a pregnancy.

Abortion, it seems, is Ireland's last bastion of moral grandstanding and state-sponsored violence against women—especially now that the Irish government has taken a surprisingly compassionate approach to dealing with citizens who are addicted to heroin. Over the summer, Amnesty International initiated a campaign to call for legal abortion in Ireland. And this September, abortion activists once again took up their annual march for their rights in Dublin, but nothing has happened since. Earlier this week, however, Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin announced that in 2016 Ireland will begin providing supervised safe rooms for heroin users to inject with minimized risks.

Safe rooms for drug users can provide a critical and effective point for addiction intervention, counseling, and medical treatment. That the government acknowledges that deaths and overdoses can be prevented by decriminalization and a public health-based approach—as opposed to a criminal one—is a good thing. "It is easy to forget that behind every drug user, there is a human being. Addiction is not a choice, it's a healthcare issue," Ríordáin told the London School of Economics in an address.

The Independent reports that 596 people have died in England and Wales from illicit drug injections, while zero have died in supervised injection facilities.

Ireland's leaders are additionally considering drug decriminalization across the board, but they continue to ignore the fact that behind every pregnancy is a woman who should be able to have reproductive choice. Abortion, after all, is a health issue, too.

Many women who want to have an abortion have to make a costly trip to the UK in order to garner health services. Donna Rose is one young woman living in Ireland who was forced to spend over $1600 to travel out of the country to where she could have a safe and legal abortion. "If I didn't have support [from my partner] I don't know what I would have done," she told Broadly. "I was 18, just about to start college, and I was working two nights a week in a bar."

"The real difficulties began when I got back," she said. "I found it so difficult to source aftercare in my county. I didn't even know if it was possible for me to get a post-abortive check up or counseling [in Ireland]."

Read More: The Irish Abortion Bus Is on a Cross Country Tour

Not to mention that the stigma around abortion in the country can take a toll on mental health. "I felt so much shame; If I had [my abortion] in my home country I would be considered a criminal. (In Ireland, abortion is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.) I became depressed and barely functional. I have never regretted my choice, however the environment I had to make it in was one of guilt, secrecy, and hostility. That had far more of a negative effect on my emotional wellbeing than the abortion itself.," Rose said.

When abortion is illegal, the outcome for women can be grim. It can also be deadly. In 2012, an Irish woman Savita Halappanavar died when she miscarried and was subsequently denied an abortion when she visited a hospital.

"The perverse logic of Article 40.3.3... means medical conditions due to pregnancy that are not in themselves life-threatening must be allowed become life-threatening before it is legal to terminate a pregnancy," TD Joan Collins has said of Ireland's anti-women, and anti-women's health, ban on abortion.

The primary reason Ireland's government has provided for furnishing safe rooms for drug addicts is the same as the argument for safe, and legal abortion: to replace shame and stigma with practical healthcare—and stop unnecessary deaths.