The Long Road to Repeal
A look at the Atheist Ireland campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment.
*updated version of an article first published 18/03/2017
We are nearing the end of the very long road to repeal. These final few weeks of campaigning are the accumulation of years of hard work and the dedication of countless people across dozens of organisations. Atheist Ireland are proud to have contributed to this campaign and to have worked with so many wonderful and inspiring people.
We are asking all our members and supporters to join the campaign for these last two weeks. Join your local canvassing group and let’s work together for yes.
As far back as our second AGM in 2010 Atheist Ireland, when launching a campaign for a secular State, decided that any position the organisation took on complex ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia would be “based on human rights and compassion, and applying reason to empirical evidence, and not on religious doctrines”.
In July 2012 we invited Sinead Redmond to speak at an ‘Atheists in the Pub’ event. Sinead explained why she set up the Facebook page ‘Unlike Youth Defence, I Trust Women to Decide for Themselves’ against misinformation being disseminated by Youth Defence. You can watch her talk ‘Trusting Women to Decide’ here.
In August 2012, Michael Nugent began his long-running blog post ‘1,000 Women Worth Listening To’ (now updated to 2,000 women). The blog aims to promote women speakers for atheist, skeptic, scientific or human rights events and includes a long list of pro-choice speakers.
Also in 2012 members of Atheist Ireland joined a crowd of approximately 2,500 protesters for the March for Choice in Dublin. Atheist Ireland have taken part in every March for Choice since.
Finally in 2012 we were, like the rest of the country shocked, saddened and angered by the death of Savita Halappanavar from septicaemia following a miscarriage and the refusal of a potentially life-saving abortion. At the time, while acknowledging that we were not a reproductive rights advocacy group and recognising and respecting that our members held a range of ethical positions on abortion we continued to advocate a rational, ethical and secular Ireland, and wrote that ‘prioritising a doomed foetus over the life of a woman cannot be considered rational or ethical and could not be permitted in an ethical, secular state. What happened to Savita should not have been allowed to happen and must never be allowed to happen again’. In our weekly newsletter we linked to a number of articles written by pro-choice advocates including Michael Nugent here and here, Jennifer Keane here, ‘docconcoct’ here and here and Justin Shorten here. Members of Atheist Ireland joined the many, many others who gathered for vigils in the memory of Savita.
In January 2013 we made a comprehensive submission to the Irish Human Rights Commission ‘Right to Life Review’. This submission dealt with three specific areas:
- The right to physical and psychological integrity
- Cases of fatal foetal abnormality
- The equal right of women to health
In early 2013 the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children held three days of hearings to discuss the Government’s decision to legislate and regulate for abortion law in the aftermath of the ABC judgement in the European Court of Human Rights. Predictably the Committee invited various religious bodies (Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church of Ireland, Methodist Church of Ireland, and Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland) to address them on this issue. Even more predictably, they failed to invite any non-religious group to this session. Atheist Ireland wrote to the Committee and asked to be included as the voice of the non-religious at these hearings. We were very pleased when the Committee agreed to this and we invited to take part in this hearing. At these hearings Michael Nugent outlined the case for the Government to approach this issue from an ethical secular perspective, and not on the basis of theological beliefs. The videos of these hearings can be viewed here and here.
Also in January 2013 at an ‘Atheists in the Pub’ event we had an informal discussion about the need for secular healthcare, with an emphasis on the right to die and access to abortion.
In February 2013 Michael Nugent took part in a debate against Youth Defence in UCL where he argued for the right to legal abortion in Ireland. Michael also challenged Youth Defence about the substantial financial support that they get from Joseph Scheidler, an American anti-choice activist who promotes the disruption of the work of abortion clinics. Youth Defence declined permission for their contribution to the debate to be recorded.
In June 2013 members of Atheist Ireland attended a counter-protest to the Catholic ‘Rally for Life’. The overt Catholic signs and symbols at the rally are evident in this short video (but be warned, there is also graphic images).
In July 2013 Atheist Ireland hosted an international conference ‘Empowering Women Through Secularism’. A number of pro-choice and human rights campaigners spoke including Clare Daly, Ailbhe Smyth, Ross Kelly, Anthea McTiernan, Rachel Donnelly, Sinead Kennedy and Maryam Namazie and the Dublin Declaration on Empowering Women Through Secularism was adopted. Number four ‘Reproductive Rights‘ states:
“Priorities in democratic states: the state should recognize and respect the right to universal and absolute bodily ownership. Reproductive healthcare services should be free, accessible, non-judgmental and objective. Comprehensive evidence-based sex education should be universally available.
Priorities in nondemocratic states: human rights conventions should be honored in their entirety, and directives should not be vetoed on religious grounds or otherwise. International assistance should be given to grassroots campaigns involved in the provision and promotion of comprehensive reproductive health services and education.”
And included under priorities for Ireland are:
- The decriminalization of abortion and related services.
- The eighth amendment should be removed from the Constitution.
- Protection of and access to free and legal reproductive health services, free from religious interference.
In October 2013 Atheist Ireland made a submission to the Convention on the Constitution which included the following:
“Article 40.3.3 states that: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
This Article was inserted into the Constitution after a campaign based on enforcing Catholic teaching about abortion on all citizens through the Constitution. It discriminates against women who wish to terminate a pregnancy in order to protect their bodily autonomy and maintain the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Women do not have the same right as men to physical and mental health when living in Ireland.
We recommend: Remove this Section from the Constitution to enable the Oireachtas to pass laws that base healthcare decisions on compassion, human rights, personal autonomy, and the medical needs of patients.”
Members of Atheist Ireland attended the public meetings of the Convention on the Constitution across the country, and raised this recommendation numerous times.
March 2014, Atheist Ireland made a submission to Seanad Public Consultation Committee on Ireland’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which contained the following recommendation:
“Remove Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution to enable the Oireachtas to pass abortion laws consistent with our obligations under the ICCPR.”
And supplied the following evidence for this recommendation:
“In 2008 the UN under the ICCPR raised this issue which the State ignored. They asked the State to bring its laws on abortion into line with the Covenant. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 does not bring Ireland’s abortion laws into line with the Covenant as Article 40.3.3. of the Irish Constitution is incompatible with Ireland’s human rights obligations under the Covenant.”
In June 2014 Atheist Ireland made a submission in preparation for Ireland’s examination by the UN Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. We made the following recommendations under the heading ‘Article 6 Abortion and Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution‘.
“The Committee’s Questions In 2008 the UN under the ICCPR raised this issue which the State ignored. They asked the State to bring its laws on abortion into line with the Covenant.
The Current Situation The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 does not bring Ireland’s abortion laws into line with the Covenant as Article 40.3.3. of the Irish Constitution is incompatible with Ireland’s human rights obligations under the Covenant.
Atheist Ireland’s Position Atheist Ireland supports the campaign to repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, to enable our Parliament to legislate in accordance with Ireland’s human rights obligations under the Covenant. We are not elaborating in detail on this issue in this submission, as there are other Irish advocacy groups, who are more directly involved with this issue, who are making more comprehensive recommendations in separate submissions.”
In July 2014 Atheist Ireland attended and briefed the UN Human Rights Committee. We worked closely and actively supported pro-choice groups who were also attending. We did not speak ourselves on the issue of abortion as agreed in advance with these groups.
In September 2014 Atheist Ireland made a submission to United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which contained the following:
Article 12 – Women’s health and the right to abortion
13.1 Ireland’s abortion law limits women’s and girls’ enjoyment of the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health as guaranteed under article 12(1) of the ICESCR.
13.2 The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 does not bring Ireland’s abortion laws into line with the Covenant as Article 40.3.3. of the Irish Constitution is incompatible with Ireland’s human rights obligations under the Covenant.
13.3 Atheist Ireland supports the campaign to repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, to enable our Parliament to legislate in accordance with Ireland’s human rights obligations under the Covenant.
Human rights are not subject to majority votes
13.4 Ireland’s defence of this issue arose during the recent questioning of Ireland by the UNHRC under the ICCPR. While they were referring to obligations under the ICCPR, the underlying principles of human rights (while discussing Irish abortion law) not being subject to majority votes was discussed.
13.5 The UN Human Rights Committee asked Ireland why it was in breach of the human right of pregnant women to an abortion in wider circumstances than allowed by Irish law. The Irish State replied that Irish abortion law reflects the will of the Irish people, as allowed under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
13.6 The UN Human Rights Committee said that that was a completely unacceptable reason for denying human rights, and that the very core of human rights law is a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. After a break in the session, the Irish Justice Minister Frances FitzGerald formally withdrew the remark and accepted that “the majority will does not and can not derogate from human rights obligations.”
13.7 Here are the relevant extracts from UNHRC questioning of Ireland:
13.8 Yuval Shany of the UN Human Rights Committee
‘I am however quite, well, very troubled, frankly, by the sweeping claim that has been made, that the free will of the Irish electorate may, by virtue of Article 25 of the Covenant, allow the Irish State to violate other provisions of the Covenant, including nonderogable provisions such as Articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant.
I find this argument to be completely unacceptable, I should say, and one that strikes at the very core of human rights law as a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority, and one that cuts against the very raison d’être of having an international regime of universal human rights protections.
And I call on the State Party to consider withdrawing that statement, on the ability of the Irish State to deviate from the Covenant at will, and to come up with some other explanations for why their laws and practices on abortion are compatible with the Covenant.’
13.9 Yuji Iwasawa of the UN Human Rights Committee
‘Before I address issues 22 and 24, I would like to join my colleague Mr Shany in pointing out that human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote in the Parliament. Arguments to justify a deviation from the protection of human rights under the Covenant by invoking article 25 of the Covenant cannot be accepted.’
13.10 Cornelis Flinterman of the UN Human Rights Committee
‘I would like to raise some follow-up questions on the very important issue of abortion. Let me first of all state that I share very much the concern expressed by my colleagues Mr Shany and Mr Iwasawa, of the reference by the Delegation to Article 25. There is no disagreement that a full and free discussion is crucial in any society, and that it is the cornerstone of any democratic and free society, as reflected also in our General Comment number 34 in which our former Irish member played such an important role, Michael Flaherty.
Yet the outcome of such a discussion, even if it is full and free and informed, the outcome of such a discussion in the form of a parliamentary majority decision can never be used as an argument to legitimise the violation of substantive rights under the Covenant. As has been said, such an argument would indeed undermine the essence of the human rights framework both domestically and internationally.’
13.11 Irish Justice Minister Frances FitzGerald
‘On question 12, I would want to begin my comments in relation to this by referring to the comments of Mr Shany, Mr Iwasawa and Mr Flinterman. And I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government of Ireland recognises entirely the points made by the members of the Committee in relation to Article 25, that the majority will does not and can not derogate from human rights obligations, and I hope that’s a very clear statement of our position.’
13.12 Yuval Shany of the UN Human Rights Committee
‘I am very pleased to hear the Minister’s unambiguous statement on Article 25 of the Covenant, and I appreciate the Delegation’s immediate response to our concern in this regard.’
13.13 Despite this commitment by the Irish state to not use majority will to derogate from human rights obligations, including on the specific issue of abortion, nothing has changed on the ground in Ireland.
Michael Nugent also raised this issue when he spoke at the OSCE later that year.
October 2014, Ashling O’Brien was the guest on the Free Thought Friday podcast on the topic of Secular Questions on Abortion where she discussed the lack of non-religious arguments against abortion.
In April 2015 Michael Nugent and Jane Donnelly were invited to speak with a group of Danish students visiting Ireland. The discussion covered secularism, marriage equality and Ireland’s constitutional prohibition on abortion. It was also in April 2015 that Atheist Ireland joined the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment.
In May 2015 Atheist Ireland made three submissions to the United Nations in preparation to the Irish State’s examination about its human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Once again we raised the issue of Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion and neglect of women’s human rights. We also briefed the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva before it questioned the Irish State.
In July of 2015 we released a statement on our position on repeal of the 8th Amendment in which we stated:
Atheist Ireland has always promoted ethical secularism, and we take positions on a number of ethical issues where state policy has had a religious influence, including LGBT rights, the right to die and abortion. This approach is consistent with Atheist Ireland’s constitution, and has been endorsed at two AGMs, as we have moved from simply highlighting the issues to making specific proposals for change….Through its membership of The Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment and its activities independent of it, Atheist Ireland is committed to campaigning firstly to secure a referendum to fully repeal the 8th Amendment and secondly to work on passing this referendum.
September 2015, Michael Nugent took part in a debate on TV3 in on abortion rights in Catholic hospitals where he argued that Catholic hospitals must respect abortion rights regardless of their religious ethos, otherwise they have no right to be in the business of running hospitals.
Later that September Michael Nugent raised the issue of abortion once again at the OSCE human rights conference in Warsaw and in our follow up recommendations we called on the Irish Government to vindicate the reproductive rights of women in Ireland:
“OSCE/ODIHR to reinforce to Ireland, and Ireland to urgently implement: Repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, to enable the Oireachtas to legislate for the right to abortion. Decriminalise abortion by repealing sections 22 and 23 of the Protection of life During Pregnancy Act 2013. Repeal the Abortion Information Act 1995. Provide a human rights compliant framework for abortion, in law and in practice.”
and to implement the conclusions of the UN Human Rights Committee:
“The Committee told Ireland that it should: Revise its legislation on abortion, including its Constitution, to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the mother, or fatal foetal abnormality; Swiftly adopt the Guidance Document to clarify what constitutes a “real and substantive risk” to the life of the pregnant woman; and Consider making more information on crisis pregnancy options available through a variety of channels, and ensure that healthcare providers who provide information on safe abortion services abroad are not subject to criminal sanctions.”
In October of the same year we made a submission to the Department of Justice as part of the process of Ireland being reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2016. We endorsed the recommendations on abortion rights made in the ‘Your Rights Right Now’ civil society submission.
In March 2016 Atheist Ireland was selected to speak at a pre-session meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva , as part of the lead-up to the Human Rights Council questioning Ireland about its human rights record in May. We made the following submission in which we raised points and made recommendations under ‘Reproductive Rights and Historic Abuse’:
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 criminalises abortion including in the case of rape and incest and of risk to the health of a pregnant woman.
Repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, to enable the Oireachtas to legislate for the right to abortion.
Decriminalise abortion by repealing sections 22 and 23 of the Protection of life During Pregnancy Act 2013. Repeal the Abortion Information Act 1995. Provide a human rights compliant framework for abortion, in law and in practice.
Implement full independent inquiries into symphysiotomy and Magdalen laundries.
Enact prosecutions where wrongdoing is established. Adopt and implement a consistent approach, in line with international human rights law, to all inquiries into historical abuse.
Also in March 2016 Jane Donnelly spoke at an event organised by the Workers Party on a ‘Secular Ireland’ which discussed abortion rights in modern day Ireland.
In September 2016 Atheist Ireland was the first atheist advocacy group to address the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva as members of Atheist Alliance International. We made a statement as part of the final session of the Universal Periodic Review of Ireland. Once again we raised the issue of reproductive rights:
Analysis and Requirements
Atheist Alliance International affiliate, Atheist Ireland, is a member of the Campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, to enable the Oireachtas to legislate for the right to abortion. Atheist Ireland supports the analysis and recommendations of the States seeking to strengthen women’s right to abortion in Ireland, and of the Irish civil society groups who are advocating for this right.
Michael Nugent’s address at the UNHRC UPR2016 can be viewed here.
The same week we spoke again at the OSCE, and again raised reproductive rights. While in Warsaw Jane Donnelly also spoke for Atheist Ireland at a large Black Protest rally against the new Polish abortion Bill. Later in the week, Nina Sankari of the KLF Polish atheist foundation spoke at a protest at the Irish Embassy in Poland in support of the Irish campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. This was the same week that members of Atheist Ireland took part in the 5th annual March for Choice in Dublin.
In October 2016 Jane Donnelly discussed the similarities between the Irish and Polish abortion rights campaigns on the Global Village programme on Newstalk Radio with host Dil Wickremasinghe.
Finally in December 2016 Atheist Ireland made a submission to the Citizens’ Assembly wherein we argued that Ireland’s laws should respect individual conscience and that making abortion illegal was not a settled moral value.
In February 2017, following the failure of the Citizens’ Assembly to invite Terminations for Medical Reasons to present we contacted the Assembly requesting that they reverse this decision and invite them to present.
Upon receipt of an invitation to speak at the Citizens’ Assembly we submitted a paper outlining our more detailed earlier submission.
On 5th March Ashling O’Brien spoke at the Citizens’ Assembly. Ashling argued that the State had an obligation to protect the freedom of conscience of all people, not just those who are religious and that it should not force religious conscience on those who do not share it. She also argued that the Sate spoke as if it was a settled moral value that abortion should be illegal when it was clear that there is far from a settled consensus on the matter.
Also in March 2017 we took part in the March for Repeal where Ashling O’Brien spoke on behalf of Atheist Ireland outside the Dáil and Ashling was interviewed on the Free Thought Prophet podcast about the Citizens’ Assembly and the campaign to decriminalise abortion in Ireland.
In April Jane Donnelly spoke for woman’s reproductive rights at the Days of Atheism conference in Warsaw.
In July Jane Donnelly chaired a panel on Religion in Law and State at the I Want To Be Free conference in London.
In March 2018 Jane Donnelly addressed a 50,000 strong abortion rights rally in Poland.
In April we published an article looking at what the Bible says about abortion.
In May we organised an information evening and fundraiser for Together for Yes in Dublin. Speakers included Dr Mark Murphy (Doctors for Choice), Treasa McVeigh (Dublin NW Together for Yes), Dr Krysia Lynch (Chair of the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services), Dr Cliona Saidléar (Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland) and Bernadette Grogan (Dublin NW Together for Yes).
Across the country our members are joining their local canvassing teams and working hard to bring about a Yes vote on 25th May.
(This is not a complete summary of our campaign work on this issue. Over the years Atheist Ireland has also attended and spoken at numerous conference, seminars, meetings and workshop on abortion and repeal of the 8th Amendment organised by different groups including the National Woman’s Council, the Abortion Rights Campaign and the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment.)