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Abortion in Ireland

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.


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  1. Unseemly. That's the word I want. There was something unseemly about crowds of people in triumphant mood after the results were announced. It looked like a crowd whose team had just won a championship, though the predominance of young female faces suggested something else, perhaps a gathering to welcome a famous entertainer.

    Let it be said that the reaction was understandable; it was a long campaign on an issue about which people felt strongly. That they should now gather and applaud those who organised the success was to be expected. But nagging at the back of the mind is the wish that it could have been for victory in a different area: sport or politics or human triumph in adversity.

  2. It was interesting to read your experience being in Ireland right before the referendum vote, Gerry. I am encouraged that both viewpoints were listened to and carefully considered.

    Like many things in life - abortion is not a black & white issue, unlike the way it has been talked about by both the Catholic Church and the schools I attended growing up. This is never an easy decision - and more often than not - is faced at times when there are other crises and factors present - the mother's health, the way this happened, etc.. No one ever WANTS an abortion.

    This is a women's health issue, and I would argue an economic one. A traditionally male government and male controlled church dictating reproductive policies and laws is just not okay. (I am reminded of the recent health care debate of all those white men at the White House "debating" what should be left in the health care bills - but that is another discussion for another time) What happened in the patient X and Halappanvar cases should never have happened - and one can seriously debate where the respect for life thoughts went in both those cases? From an economic perspective, for all those women who went to the UK to get an abortion, there are many more who could not afford that trip. And then what happened to them and their children?

    I am encouraged by what happened in this vote. I would suggest the cheering is euphoria from citizens that their peers and fellow citizens recognized that women's health and women's rights are human rights.


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