Abortion in Ireland Gerry O'Shea
In the early 1980's, 35 or so years ago, a group of sincere and zealous Catholics raised the alarm in Ireland about a major societal problem that wasn't identified by any of the political parties at that time. They pointed to the frequency of abortions in Europe and America and especially in neighboring Britain where they claimed that pregnancy terminations were performed with the same frequency and nonchalance as a dentist carrying out a tooth extraction.
These men warned that even though abortion was illegal and no political party at that time was indicating a possible change of policy on the issue, that future politicians or, more likely judges, might change the law and lead the country in the direction of our "pagan" neighbor. Their campaign, which was strongly supported by the Catholic bishops, was successful, and in the fall of 1983 a clause was inserted in the Irish constitution giving equal legal status to a mother's life and the life of the fetus.
How did it work out? The adage that "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry" applies in spades to the Irish abortion story since 1983.
First we had the heart-rending story of a 14-year old girl, known as the X case, pregnant as a result of rape, who was barred from going abroad for a termination because of the constitutional ban. In a more recent case, a woman in Galway, Savita Halappanvar, was refused the treatment needed to save her life because her family was told that "we are a Catholic hospital," following the law.
And what did many Irish women do who - for whatever reason - decided that they didn't want to continue their pregnancy? They went to England, in many cases using the address of a friend there, and getting an abortion, compliments of the British health services. It is estimated that around 180,000 Irish women dealt with their crisis pregnancies in that way since 1983.
In 1979 then Minister for Health, Charles Haughey, introduced a bill in parliament which allowed doctors to prescribe contraceptives for use only by married couples. In defending that strange legislation he claimed it was "an Irish solution to an Irish problem." Recalling this inadequate response to the adult use of contraceptives, some commentators wryly claimed that hypocritically exporting our abortion problem was "an English solution to an Irish problem."
The referendum to delete the 1983 constitutional ban was carried on May 25th with a high turnout of voters in all constituencies. The percentages for change, 2:1, were very similar to the numbers for the opposite result 35 years earlier. The Government has indicated that it will pass a bill before the end of the year allowing abortion up to 12 weeks .
How can one understand this massive change in Ireland from a strong majority for banning termination of pregnancy under almost any circumstance a mere 35 years ago to an equally strong majority in favor of a liberal abortion law today?
I spent the week before the recent vote visiting family in Kerry and Dublin, and I listened carefully to the arguments for and against change. The television stations and the airwaves made every effort to give both sides a fair hearing.
The core arguments for and against change were presented very cogently. The proponents in favor of the status quo pointed out that abortion involves a life in the womb whose rights have to be honored. On the other side, the questioners asked what should happen to a woman who has been impregnated by a rapist. Should she be forced to continue the pregnancy?
The hypocrisy of exporting our problems to England resonated with many listeners and viewers. Even more so, it was clear that the demeaning of females, skulking off to another country for a medical procedure, is no longer acceptable, especially to younger women.
The bishops and priests who argued forcibly and successfully from every pulpit for inserting a constitutional ban on abortion in 1983 have lost much of their credibility. Their abject failure to protect children from abusive priests and brothers and nuns in so many Irish dioceses and industrial schools and magdalene institutions has resulted in an Irish clergy that is tainted by the mark of moral turpitude.
The days of clerical pomp are over. The archbishops of Dublin and Armagh were heard but not heeded much in the recent referendum. Young people, especially, are going their own way - voters in their 20's opted by more than 10 to 1 for change on May 25th.
The expectations of Irish women are very different now than even at the turn of the century. Part of this liberation involves greater sexual freedom, including the right to end an unwanted pregnancy in a safe medical setting.
They will have that right in Ireland before the year is out. Thankfully, there will never again be an X or Halappanvar case anywhere in the Republic.
The debate about the vexing issue of abortion will go on in Ireland as it has in America since the landmark Roe V Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973.
Check out Gerry O'Shea's blog at wemustbetalking.com