Leo Varadkar, head of the Irish government, announced that the referendum on whether to repeal the country’s near-total abortion ban will take place during May or June of 2018. This time frame puts the referendum just weeks before Pope Francis’s scheduled visit to Ireland in August of next year. Last year, the former Irish government confirmed that Pope Francis would visit Ireland during the 2018 World Meeting of Families, marking the first papal visit to the country since 1979. Varadkar has stated that he sees no potential conflict in the scheduling, stressing that the papal visit occurs during a legislative recess, but not yet addressing concerns about the psychological impact the impending visit could have on the referendum vote. Ailbhe Smyth, spokeswoman and convener for the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, has repeated the Coalition’s preference that the “referendum should be held as soon as possible”; in contrast, Varadkar believes the referendum demands “careful consideration” and “ample time to consider the issues.” Varadkar has described Ireland’s abortion ban as “too restrictive.” Meanwhile, the Citizens’ Assembly put together to deliberate the issue last year returned a generally prochoice decision—contributing to the call for this referendum—and a poll for the Irish Times reported 75 percent of the Irish people favor repealing the ban.
in Catholic Circles
Abortion rights activists in Chile received a landmark victory in August as the country’s Constitutional Court upheld legislation relaxing Chile’s abortion ban. The former ban, dating to the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, criminalized abortion in all circumstances. Once the new law passed the legislature, conservative opponents filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional. The court upheld the law, delivering a victory for both reproductive rights and a democratic Chile. President Michelle Bachelet declared the court’s decision marked a “historic day for the women of Chile!” Bachelet’s position reflects the approximately 70 percent of Chileans who supported the measure, despite resistance from the Catholic hierarchy and a few ultraconservative politicians. Advocacy group Miles Chile previously estimated that 70,000 abortions are carried out in secret in Chile each year, demonstrating both the immediate positive impact the new law will have in the country, as well as the work that abortion rights advocates still need to do to ensure accessible and safe family planning and abortion services throughout Chile.
El Salvador is one of five countries to prohibit abortions in all cases, including for life-endangering pregnancies and pregnancies resulting from rape. In July a 19-year-old rape survivor was convicted of “aggravated homicide” and sentenced to 30 years in prison after delivering a stillbirth at home. The state, whose politics and laws are highly influenced by the Catholic hierarchy, decided that her failure to seek prenatal care amounted to homicide of the fetus. Her defense attorneys plan to appeal the ruling, with one calling the ruling “a decision based on morality, not the law or justice.” While human rights groups and the UN are urging El Salvador to decriminalize abortion, women and girls in the country continue to live under one of the harshest antiabortion laws in the world. “There is a stigma and fear in reporting rape,” says Dr. Mario Soriano of the Salvadoran Ministry of Health. Salvadoran government figures show that more than a third of maternal deaths in the country are the result of suicide among pregnant women under 19.
In June the Liberal-led Canadian government launched a five-year plan to commit 95 percent of Canada’s foreign development assistance to programs targeting the empowerment of women and girls. As part of this plan, the government announced it would double the amount of funding going to health and reproductive rights. The plan is called the Feminist International Assistance Policy. Canada’s Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau said in describing the vision that to “break the vicious cycle of poverty and violence” we must give women “the opportunities to choose their own future and fully contribute to their community.” The plan has been celebrated by development aid organizations, with Michael Messenger, President and CEO of World Vision Canada saying that “[the plan] will help make the world a better place to live for everyone, everywhere” and describing it as “about basic human rights and basic common sense.” The Canadian bishops’ conference, however, publicly denounced the plan. President of the conference Bishop Douglas Crosby called the policy politically motivated, saying that “political ideology cannot be allowed to dictate foreign policy.” Crosby’s letter criticized the government’s assertion that abortion, sexual and reproductive rights are women’s rights.
In England and Wales abortion care is provided by the state under certain circumstances, though under the 1967 Abortion Act the procedure is regarded as otherwise criminal. At its annual conference this June, the British Medical Association approved by supermajority a motion to lobby parliament to decriminalize abortion and treat it as any other medical procedure. Such a shift in policy could result in changed regulations about when and how abortion care is provided. Dr. Clare Gerada, former chairwoman of the Royal College of General Physicians and a trustee of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service called the motion powerful and said that “the [British Medical Association] to be coming out absolutely overwhelmingly for the decriminalization of abortion” should mean that “politicians will have to stand up and listen and actually take action.” A spokeswoman from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales criticized the notion, asserting that “the decriminalization of abortion may put more vulnerable women at risk.”
Later citing “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” in Latin to explain the source of his views, Tory Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg declared that he opposes abortion in all circumstances. This extremely conservative assertion made headlines in the United Kingdom, where such a restrictive statement had not been made by a politician since the late 1980s. Former Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe, also a Catholic, described Rees-Mogg’s views as “nothing like as rare as you may think,” highlighting the infrequency that such views are stated publicly. The declaration also caused a stir among conservative and liberal politicians in the United Kingdom, where abortion has been legal since 1967 and is generally regarded as a settled matter. Some fellow conservatives applauded him for speaking his mind, but expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction with his comments; others directly disagreed with his statement. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May said, “The prime minister doesn’t happen to agree, but it is a matter of conscience.” Rees-Mogg said in the same interview that his personal beliefs on the matter would not affect state policy, adding that abortion rights in the UK were “not going to change.”