Irish expats in Australia await abortion referendum result


Ireland is preparing to vote in a referendum that could re-write the country’s strict abortion laws.

Ireland's referendum on abortion is being watched closely by Irish expatriates in Australia, many who are frustrated at their inability to vote.

Voting rights for Irish emigrants are restricted to those who have left the country within the past 18 months and there is no postal or online vote. 

The question at stake on Friday is whether or not to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish constitution, which protects the right to life of the unborn.

Even in cases of rape, child sexual abuse and incest, or where fatal foetal abnormalities are present, a woman in Ireland can't access a termination unless her life is at risk.

Yes vote supporters at a Diaspora Downunder Dollars for Choice event in Melbourne.
Yes vote supporters at a Diaspora Downunder Dollars for Choice event in Melbourne.

Because of the restrictive constitutional laws, each year more than 3,000 Irish women and girls travel to the United Kingdom to have an abortion, where the procedure is legal. 

Irish-born Shauna Stanley lives in Melbourne and is ineligible to vote, but still wanted to contribute to the outcome. She believes the laws in her home country have fostered the oppression of women.

The Melbourne Irish Abortion Rights Campaign group has launched the Diaspora Downunder Dollars for Choice campaign, holding fundraising events across Australia. It wants the 8th Amendment repealed and has raised at least $10,000 so far for the Yes campaign in Ireland.

“Being Irish in Australia you do feel less stigmatised if you talk about abortion,” Ms Stanley told SBS News.

“It’s legal in some states [in Australia] and at least de-stigmatised in others, so we do feel like we can talk about this issue without fear of judgement.” 

Mixed opinions

The push for a referendum in Ireland began in 2012 after the death of 31-year-old dentist Savita Halappanavar, who had a septic miscarriage after being denied an abortion. She was told by hospital staff she couldn't have an abortion because of the laws in the majority-Catholic country.

Many health experts and doctors have joined the Yes campaign, but opinions are divided in the profession.

Former chairman of Ireland's Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Eamon McGuinness, says doctors should provide counselling and care; he’s voting No.

“Termination up to 12 weeks is proposed. This is the removal of a healthy baby in utero. There's no justification for that. This isn't the provision of healthcare. We're not providing healthcare by removing a very healthy baby,” Dr McGuinness said.

A poster calling for a No vote in the referendum is seen in Dublin, Ireland.
A poster calling for a No vote in the referendum is seen in Dublin, Ireland.

A Sky News survey conducted this month found 47 per cent of voters were in support of the reform and 37 per cent were against, while an Ipsos poll commissioned by The Irish Times found 44 per cent were in favour of change and 32 per cent were against.

How do laws in Australia compare?

In Australia, abortion laws vary from state to state. While it's technically illegal in New South Wales and Queensland, it is lawful if a woman's mental or physical health is at risk. In New South Wales, that also includes financial and social stress.

In the rest of the country, women can access a termination up to 14 or 24 weeks, but Tasmanians now have to fly interstate after the state's last abortion clinic closed due to lack of demand and rising costs.

Shauna Stanley says the debate on abortion and women's bodies happening in Ireland is relevant across the world.

“The situation in Australia emphasises very well how even if we repeal the 8th Amendment that is not the end of the fight,” Ms Stanley said.

“We’re going to have to keep going to ensure that women can access safe and legal abortion procedures in Ireland but also so that they can do so without stigma.

“I hope that we can all demonstrate solidarity with each other in our various struggles because ultimately access to abortion should not depend on where you live.”

What next for Ireland? 

If the 8th amendment is repealed, the Irish government would be allowed to legislate on abortion. It would bring Ireland into line with the majority of European countries and allow for abortion on request up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

After 12 weeks, abortion would only be available in cases of fatal foetal anomaly, if the woman’s life was at risk or if her health was at risk of serious harm.  Cases after 12 weeks would have to be approved by two doctors.

The final days of the campaign have seen voters on both sides of the debate voicing their opinion.

In Dublin, 27-year-old retail worker Emma-Kate O'Callahan is urging people to vote Yes.

“I just feel like women should have the choice for a safe abortion,” she told Reuters.

WATCH: Dateline - Ireland’s Abortion Debate

But the debate hasn’t necessarily been generational. Many young, conservative women share pro-life views, including 21-year-old Dublin student Maria Maynes.

“This is a referendum on the right to life. We all have a right to life,” Ms Maynes said.

“You know, nobody would say to vote away somebody else's right to life. It's a human rights issue.”

Results of the referendum will be known on Saturday evening, Australian time. 

 - With Reuters and AAP

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