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Ireland allowed mental health abortion exception 30 years ago

Ireland has protected the right to seek an abortion because of the risk of suicide since 1992

A dozen people with the Bound4LIFE group stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building with red tape over their mouths. While 18 U.S. states have essentially banned abortion for pregnant people facing a mental health crisis, Ireland, which had one of the strictest abortion laws in the European Union until 2018, has protected the right to seek an abortion because of the risk of suicide since 1992.
A dozen people with the Bound4LIFE group stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building with red tape over their mouths. While 18 U.S. states have essentially banned abortion for pregnant people facing a mental health crisis, Ireland, which had one of the strictest abortion laws in the European Union until 2018, has protected the right to seek an abortion because of the risk of suicide since 1992. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

While 18 U.S. states have essentially banned abortion for pregnant people facing a mental health crisis, Ireland, which had one of the strictest abortion laws in the European Union until 2018, has taken a different approach.

Ireland has protected the right to seek an abortion because of the risk of suicide since 1992. While more than two-thirds of U.S. states have enacted laws that include mental health among the medical reasons a woman can have an abortion, Ireland protected exceptions for risk of suicide long before the country voted in 2018 to repeal its amendment banning abortion.

In 1992, the Irish Supreme Court established the right to get an abortion for emergencies including risk of suicide after a teen rape victim’s family sought to travel abroad to get their daughter an abortion.

In 1997, a separate case in Ireland’s high court found a teen had the right to travel to seek an abortion because of risk of suicide, though her parents opposed the abortion.

Hayden Tomlin, a native of Ireland who became a U.S. citizen in 2019, called these cases a catalyst for legalizing abortion through 12 weeks in Ireland in 2018 while addressing the South Carolina House Judiciary Committee in May.

“In that time, countless women met similar fates or had to travel to another country to seek medical care because their own country did not care to help them,” said Tomlin. “Many suffered great trauma mentally and medically, whether due to the circumstances of their conception, the lonely travel abroad or mainly the inaccessibility of health care equal to their peers.”

Irish voters rejected two separate referendums in 1992 and 2002 that sought to rescind the exception for suicidal ideation. In 2013, the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament, codified the protection for risk of suicide into Irish law until it was superseded by the more expansive referendum.

Catherine Conlon, associate professor and director of the sociology and social policy B.A. program at Trinity College Dublin, said in practice mental health has not been invoked since the referendum. 

“The requirement of the law here is that the abortion itself is a therapeutic treatment that will remove the threat to life and remove the threat to health,” she said, which can be hard to prove the way the law is written. “That seems to be a huge aspect as to why it’s such a less certain, clear-cut boundary to draw.”

This story is part of a series supported through the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism

If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis, please call the toll-free, 24-hour 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8 to be connected to a trained counselor.

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