Search icon


15th Apr 2024

‘Treated like criminals’ — Calls for urgent reform of abortion services in Ireland

Jody Coffey


“If you have to send somebody abroad, culturally and socially, you’re framing it as a criminal and abhorrent act”

Calls have been made for the Government to prioritise ongoing issues with abortion legislation in Ireland.

Barrister Marie O’Shea, the author of a landmark review of Ireland’s abortion law, says current legislation is continuing to force women to travel abroad for terminations.

She says they are being treated like ‘criminals’.

In an interview with RTÉ Investigates, Barrister O’Shea says there has been a lack of action on the legislative recommendations which she put forward to the Government in her report early last year.

She says this inaction has resulted in some pregnant women being left to face ‘profoundly sad conditions’.

“I don’t believe that the intention of the Oireachtas at the time was just to do the review simpliciter and leave it there on a shelf to gather dust,” the barrister told the news outlet.

“Something has to happen, but it does take political will and courage to do that, and it certainly needs political leadership from the top.”

Barrister O’Shea was commissioned by the Department of Health to carry out her review on foot of the introduction of abortion legislation in Ireland in early 2019.

One of her recommendations was for Ireland’s mandatory three-day wait to be made optional.

Under abortion laws in Ireland, termination medication cannot be prescribed without completing a three-day waiting period.

However, Ms O’Shea’s review found that, in some cases, with weekends or public holidays, the three-day wait for abortion services can often extend to four or five days.

She told RTÉ Investigates that the Chief Medical Officer confirmed to her that ‘there’s no medical need’ for a three-day waiting period.

“The problem is actually stipulating in law that every woman must wait a minimum of three days”

Meanwhile, Dr Caitríona Henchion, Medical Director of the Irish Family and Planning Association (IFPA), also echoes Ms O’ Shea’s recommendations.

“In any situation where someone’s going to make a big decision or have a medical procedure everybody wants them to have sufficient time to take in the information relating to that procedure and be certain that they’re ready to proceed, that’s called informed consent,” she says.

“The problem is actually stipulating in law that every woman must wait a minimum of three days.”

The IFPA says what they see in clinics further highlights the lack of necessity for the mandatory waiting period.

For example, in 2022, two per cent of the 566 women who were subject to the three-day wait while accessing abortion care with it chose to continue with their pregnancies.

That’s according to the IFPA’s most recent figures.

Dr Henchion says that it is most probable that these women would have made that decision with or without the mandatory waiting period.

“If somebody is absolutely fully informed, has had whatever time they need, whether that be one day, two days or a week to make their decision, then I would respect that person’s autonomy and say they’ve made their decision and they know what they want,” she said.

Abortion in Ireland is only permitted during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – a tight timeline that could do without the legally imposed waiting period, Ms O’Shea says.

“Twelve weeks does sound like quite a lengthy time to get yourself to a GP but there are categories of people who have an irregular menstrual cycle, who are using contraception and unknowingly it fails, who mistake the signs of pregnancy for something else and people who have chaotic lifestyles.

“So, for a variety of reasons people may present when they’re perilously close to the end of the 12-week period and that’s a problem.”

“There’s a risk that the guards could coming knocking on your door”

Any medical practitioners who facilitate an abortion outside of the 12-week period may be at risk of criminal sanction.

The barrister’s review outlines that this must be removed in some cases as it’s resulting in overly cautious and risk.

This, Ms O’Shea’s review states, must be removed because in some cases it leads to overly cautious, risk-averse decision-making.

This is resulting in some medical practitioners refusing to perform abortions.

“There’s a risk that the guards could coming knocking on your door and the DPP might bring a prosecution and the maximum penalty in this Act is 14 years in prison – that’s hanging over your head,” Ms O’Shea said.

“It’s not regulated at all. It’s not regulated in statute; it’s not regulated anywhere else. It’s appalling”

Ms O’Shea is calling for greater medical compassion to avoid cases of women being forced to travel abroad for abortion services.

The same should apply for foetal anomaly cases, she says.

Presently, pregnancy terminations are only permitted beyond 12 weeks in strict circumstances in Ireland.

Section 11 of the Termination of Pregnancy Act requires that when a foetal anomaly (an unexpected condition in the development of the foetus) is detected, an abortion can only be carried out if two medical practitioners agree, having examined the pregnant woman, that the condition affecting the foetus is likely to cause its death before it is born or within 28 days of birth.

Ms O’Shea says this is ‘utter nonsense’ and it is difficult to put this theory into practice for all cases.

“What I have said to the Minister of Health is that this 28-day [rule] is an absolute and utter nonsense. It’s cruel and it’s too prescriptive. It’s not good law and it leads people to be in absolutely profoundly sad conditions,” Ms O’Shea said.

“If you have to send somebody abroad, culturally and socially you’re framing it as a criminal and abhorrent act and that’s in a person’s head and I don’t think the electorate would want somebody carrying around that stigma.”

Ms O’Shea has also called for the Government to regulate the pregnancy counselling sector, calling their efforts to date ‘appalling’.

She says regulation in the sector is needed to safeguard women from misleading information and ‘rogue counselling agencies’ that aim to interfere with abortion services in Ireland.

“They are interfering with reproductive health decisions, their [women’s] autonomy and they’re able to do it with absolute impunity and that’s the worst thing.

“It’s not regulated at all. It’s not regulated in statute; it’s not regulated anywhere else. It’s appalling,” Ms O’Shea said.

Watch RTÉ Investigates: Ireland’s Abortion Services on Monday April 15 at 9.35pm on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player.