Recurrent images of the masses of women filing through the streets of Europe’s capitals remind us that the conflict over whether to prioritize women’s right to choose or a fetus’ right to live is one at the heart of many major social debates. Not only does it chafe at the junctions between social progress and tradition, individualism and normativity, encouraging women to exercise their right to self-determination and protecting sacralized family life; the issue also serves as a pin on which politicians hang the canvases they paint of ‘their’ nations as either traditionalist religious countries respectful of their past (such as Poland under PiS) or liberal countries pragmatically looking to the future (e.g. The Netherlands under VVD).
With a significant pro-choice victory in Poland as the country’s conservative PiS government performs a U-turn on restricting access to abortion in the case of incest, rape, fatal foetal abnormality and risk to the mother’s life, it is easy to forget that the EU still has one State in which very few of the above constitute a legitimate cause for abortion.
Last year the Republic of Ireland became the first country to legalise same sex marriage through a popular referendum with an overwhelming victory, which seemed to signal a new liberal turn in a country many people across Europe and the world associate with conservative Catholicism. Yet Ireland, despite calls from the EU, the Council of Europe and the UN, has retained one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, where fatal foetal abnormalities and rape are not considered legal grounds for the termination of a foetus and where, even in the cases where woman’s life would be endangered by seeing a foetus to term, a woman might be denied the necessary treatment. Enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) the Eighth Amendment prevents a woman having an abortion because the foetus is considered to have an equal right to life: