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Ireland's Momentous Change: Abortion Services Are No Longer Banned


Today marks an historic moment in Ireland. For the first time, women will have broad access to legal abortions. The government passed a bill legalizing abortions last month. For more on the change, we turn NPR's London correspondent, Frank Langfitt, who's been following this. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Good morning. So describe the scope of this. How is life different today for women in Ireland than it was yesterday?

LANGFITT: Well, for pregnant ones, it's very different. For the first time beginning this morning, women can call in to a government help line for advice on a pregnancy and receive guidance on obtaining an abortion. They'll also, obviously, get other guidance. There are lots of ways to handle a pregnancy, of course.

If they're nine weeks pregnant, they'll be given the name of the nearest general practitioner who provides abortion services. So far, there are about 165 clinics in the country that have signed up to participate. And they'll offer an abortion pill. The names are actually not being published, of these clinics, because there is fear, certainly from the clinics, of being targeted by anti-abortion groups.

If a woman is more than nine weeks pregnant, she can then be referred to the nearest hospital to provide abortion procedures. There are just nine that have agreed so far to do that. But still, even though the numbers are not enormous in terms of the opportunities for women and where to go, it is a huge shift in the country. You got to remember, Rachel, as recently as 2016, at least several thousand women travelled from Ireland to England and Wales to have an abortion.

MARTIN: All right. So is the government putting any limits on abortions?

LANGFITT: It is. It is. You know, it's still - there's still a very strong conservative streak in - in, certainly, parts of the country. And abortion is now generally forbidden after 12 weeks. So, for instance, if an abortion were to fail and a woman's pregnancy exceeds 12 weeks, it would be illegal to attempt a second abortion, except for certain circumstances, particularly involving risk to the life of the mother, health of the mother. Doctors who carry out an abortion after 12 weeks, in certain circumstances, that aren't covered could face a fine or imprisonment of up to 14 years.

MARTIN: So Ireland is obviously tethered to the Catholic Church, very socially conservative, has been anyway. So this is a huge change. Can you just remind us the arc of this?


MARTIN: How did it come to be?

LANGFITT: Yeah, so back in May, politically, there was a landslide vote to repeal a constitutional amendment in Ireland that had banned nearly all abortions. But really, this goes back over the decades, and it's the culmination of years of dramatic social, economic and religious change in the country.

Now, you remember not so long ago, Ireland was poor. But the economy took off in the 1990s and drew back a lot of Irish emigrants, people who'd been in U.S., Australia, England. They came back with more liberal ideas.

The biggest factor though has been the collapse of the authority of the Catholic Church. And, of course, this has happened, to a certain degree, in the United States following the child sex abuse scandals. Also in Ireland, you had these church-run workhouses that took children away from unwed mothers. The church tried to cover up a lot of these things.

And so over four decades, what you've seen is mass attendance has gone from about 80 percent, and now it hovers around 35 percent.

MARTIN: And the pope was there recently, right? I mean, did you see evidence of the church's waning influence through his visit?

LANGFITT: He was. I was there for the visit, and it was - Rachel, it was night and day. It was so striking. Back in '79 when Pope John Paul II went, there was - to Ireland, there was an outpouring of affection. He held mass in Dublin for 1.2 million people.

This time out, Pope Francis, it was just a small fraction of that. And in the crowds, they weren't that thick in Dublin, waiting for the popemobile. And even - you could even hear some boos from victims of clerical sex abuse who'd come out to protest the church - so a huge shift in Ireland in terms of the authority and the affection for the Catholic Church.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt for us this morning. Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.