Ireland today is considered to have one of the most discriminatory and punitive abortion laws in the world. One recent article I spotted by HeadStuff.org even claimed that Irish political parties pay less respect to women’s autonomy than US republican candidate Donald Trump, a man notorious for making crude sexist comments and is commonly said to be part of the ‘war on women’.
Abortion is against the law in Ireland unless the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. Abortion is not legal in Ireland in cases of rape, incest or foetal anomalies. If a woman or girl decides to terminate her pregnancy, she will have to travel to another country to access safe and legal abortion services. The penalty for an unlawful abortion is up to 14 years imprisonment. There is also a serious lack of access to sexual and reproductive health education and emergency contraception.
Ireland has continuously been shamed by the United Nations on its violations of reproductive rights. In June 2015, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called on the Irish government once again to act immediately to do justice to the rights of women living in Ireland. In a previous international meeting in July 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee criticised the Irish state’s restrictive abortion regime, with Committee Chairman Sir Nigel Rodley saying that Ireland’s laws treats women as “a vessel for incubating a pregnancy and nothing more”. Committee member Ms Heisoo Shin noted that the Irish Government essentially endows the foetus with citizenship, observing that “it seems that the foetus is given precedence when the woman’s right to health is under threat.”
This is a gross belittlement of the rights of women and girls, and in direct conflict with the human rights to health. By restricting abortion, the State disproportionately interferes with women’s rights to health, privacy, life, freedom for inhuman or degrading treatment and non-discrimination. The Committee issued the following recommendations to the Government:
“The Committee recommends that the State party take all the steps necessary, including a referendum on abortion, to revise its legislation on abortion, including the Constitution and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, in line with international human rights standards; adopt guidelines to clarify what constitutes a real substantive risk to the life of a pregnant woman; publicize information on crisis pregnancy options through effective channels of communication; and ensure the accessibility and availability of information on sexual and reproductive health.” (Source: IFPA)
Despite continuous international concern and criticism of Ireland’s abortion laws and legislations, the Irish government refuses to hold a referendum and remains unwilling to catalyse any change. This is puzzling to most people. It is most puzzling because the government’s stance on this issue does not reflect the majority opinion of Irish citizens. A 2016 poll by Newstalk/Red C revealed that 78% of Irish people believe that abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest and 76% in cases of fatal foetal anomaly. And while only 41% believe that abortion should be an option in all circumstances, this poll is still proof that the people of Ireland want their government to address this issue and make some level of change.
So why is it that the Irish government continues to violate women’s autonomy after continuous shaming by the UN? What makes them so reluctant to make changes? Here are three sociological factors that have contributed to this current situation:
- Nationalist identity politics
- A politicised attack on sex
- Fear of the unknown
Nationalist Identity Politics
Abortion has been and continues to be used as a national boundary issue in contemporary Ireland. The debate over access to abortion has been undeniably linked to attempts to define the moral, political and economic boundaries of the Irish nation within the wider context of the transnationalist European Union. Conservative discourses used around the abortion controversies in Ireland symbolically equate Irish women with the Irish nation, and construct their bodies as an ‘other’ with regard to the EU.
Historically, Irish national identity has strongly been linked to Irish Catholicism. This identity developed during the Devotional Revolution which took place in the mid-nineteenth century. During this time the clergy took direct control over the national school curriculum and teachers which significantly increased the Catholic Church’s ability to regulate marriage, sexual practices, and the construction of gender identity in local communities. The Republic’s first constitution in 1937 thus “enshrined the patriarchal nuclear family as the cornerstone of the new state”(Source: Mayer, Gender Ironies: Sexing the Nation, 2000). The text of the constitution deemed a link between ‘woman’, ‘the home’, and motherhood, and legally restricted married women to the domestic sphere by limiting the access of married women to work outside the home. It is also important to note that this Irish identity was formed in a time when Irish men were seeking to establish a nationalist masculine identity to counter Irish colonial feminization under British rule.
It is clear that historically in nationalist Ireland, women have almost exclusively been burdened with the labour of representing the nation. They have symbolically represented the moral purity and tradition of the country. The Virgin Mary was the ideal image of femininity.
Many Irish visionaries claimed that The Virgin Mary appeared to them to deliver messages about preserving Irish cultural and moral heritage and, by extension, national boundaries. In an article about Mary’s appearance at Milleray Grotto in Ireland 1985, for example, part of Mary’s message was “I love the Irish people… I am praying for the people of Ireland… Ireland will be saved… I want the Irish people to convey my message to the world” (source: Mayer, 2000). These words highlight the special relationship between Mary and the Irish moral tradition. They also suggest that the Irish nation can be saved from the evils threatening other European countries and that Ireland, because of its unique moral tradition, should serve as a moral European leader – a place committed to representing certain values and to carrying those values to the rest of the world.
But this idea of preserving Catholic morality and Ireland’s unique heritage has material consequences for the women of Ireland. Historically, such material consequences have meant the restriction of married women from work outside the home, and from legal access to contraception, divorce and, still, abortion. Illegal abortions have resulted in many unnecessary and, frankly, inhuman situations for women. One famous example being the 1992 ‘X Case’ where a 14 year old girl pregnant as a result of rape was not allowed travel to England for an abortion. Or the death of Savita Halappanavar which caused outrage amongst the Irish public in 2012.
Ireland’s entry into the European Union has meant that the nation’s internal social policies have been challenged and the national economy has been increasingly regulated by E.U. policy decisions. The Ireland has experienced rapid change since the latter half of the 20th century. It is clear that the reluctance of today’s government to make changes to abortion laws lies largely in the desire to hold on the Ireland’s sense of Identity. A desire to maintain a distinct culture and avoid being swallowed up by European transnationalism. But while having a unique national identity is not a bad thing, it should not be at the expense of equal rights for all groups in society.
A Politicised Attack on Sex
Or more specifically, an attack on female sexuality. This is part of a wider, historical issue around the world of the control over women, their bodies and their role in society. The underlying conservative belief is that sex is only for procreation, that it is a women’s duty to have babies. A woman who has sex for pleasure and not for babies has broken the rules, she has sinned, and now she must face the consequences of her actions. Those consequences being pregnancy and childbirth.
In December 2015, a man who described himself as a ‘warrior for babies’ open-fired in a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, U.S.A. killing three people and injuring nine. Extremist conservatives took to social media to express their support for his actions, one Tweet saying “No sympathy for any pregnant female who was injured in the Planned Parenthood shooting that was there to get an abortion. She deserved it”. What makes this extreme mentality terrifying is that if a person is ignorant enough to believe that a fully grown human being and a blastocyst have the same sentience, and therefore, the same rights, that person just might not see a problem with killing the grown human being.
They may call themselves Pro-Life, however, they are anything but that. If they cared about life then certainly they would care about female death? Certainly they would not use violence? And yet, since 1997 Christian extremists have attached abortion providers nearly 7,000 times in the United States. There has been 182 arson attacks, 42 bombings, 17 attempted murders, and 8 official murders.
Those in the United States who are against Pro-Choice also do not appear to be trying to reduce abortion rates. Policies that have been proven to reduce abortion rates are implementing sex education, access to condoms, access to birth control and access to emergency contraception. And yet conservative politicians have been fighting to block all of these policies, and instead offer the public ‘abstinence only’ education – which is known to, in fact, increase the number of unintended pregnancies. A study by the University of Washington revealed that teenagers who received comprehensive sex education were 60% less likely to get pregnant than someone who received abstinence-only education.
Ireland faces similar problems. Ireland’s ‘hit and miss’ approach to sex education has failed, with the result that many young people reach adulthood without a proper understanding of how their body works. “Recent surveys from three health board areas show that 25% of Irish teenagers are sexually active by the age of 16. However many are unaware of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and some do not link sex to having a child”, said Catherine Heaney, chief executive of the IFPA. To add to that, the number of Irish teenagers travelling to Britain for an abortion has increased.
So things do not add up here. The intentions of Pro-Life policies seems far from what their name suggests. This movement in fact seems not so much about caring for life, babies, and certainly not about women.
The only conclusion that can be drawn about the Irish government’s Pro-Life stance is that they are seeking state control over women’s bodies and lives in ways which are medically unnecessary, patronizing and invasive. A deliberate attack on women. Without reproductive choice, gender equality cannot and will not be achieved. And that is exactly their point.
Fear of the Unknown
Though the topic of abortion is not the most welcomed in Irish discourse, I have still asked my fair share of fellow Irish people where they stand on this issue. There is a noticeable pattern within many of their answers which go something like – “well, I do want women to have control over their own bodies, but I’d be afraid that a culture would develop where young Irish people would go around carelessly having sex without worrying about contraception, because they know that they can just get a quickie abortion if they need to”. Personally, this is the most common answer I have heard. And not just from men. Plenty of Irish women fear this too.
However, studies have shown that making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions; it simply reduces the safety of abortion. Access to safe abortion and legalization of abortion can prevent unnecessary suffering and death of women.
It is within human nature to fear the unknown. Every equality or human rights movement throughout history has had its share of fearful hysteria surrounding it.
The same fear that many Irish people feel towards legalizing abortion was felt in the 1990s about legalizing divorce. One Donegal pro-life pamphlet written by Fr. Denis Faul in the run-up to the 1995 divorce referendum was titled The Death of a Nation (Source: Mayer, 2000). In it, Dr Faul discussed the dangers of both abortion and divorce, fusing the two in terms of their impact on Ireland and its unique heritage and way of life. Both divorce and abortion he believed would threaten to severe what he and many others saw as necessary links between love, sex and reproduction of children. Fr. Faul’s overall statement was that the separation of sexual intercourse from reproduction in Ireland represented ‘the death of the nation’. His stance was a direct extension of Irish Catholic morality.
Divorce became legal in 1997. And almost two decades after that referendum, Ireland still has the lowest divorce rate in the EU. This fact alone completely debunks the Church’s theory. Legalizing divorce did not destroy Irish families. It did not consequently kill relationships between husbands and wives. It simply made the option available for those who truly want or need it. And according to the Central Statistics Office, that is 0.6 out of 1,000 Irish people. Marriage is still seen as a serious commitment between two people who plan on spending the rest of their lives together. Legalizing divorce did not change that standard. But the Irish people wanted the right to choose for themselves, and do so without stigmatization or discrimination. The Church’s propaganda aimed to instil fear in the public, convince them that it would destroy families, and to promote their idealized image of Ireland’s unique culture.
Like divorce in Ireland, legalizing abortion will not mean that sexual carelessness will run rampant. What it will do is give women their human right to health and to their own bodies. As we liberate ourselves from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
The reality is, Irish politicians who are in favour of women’s reproductive rights may be reluctant to loudly start lobbying for these changes out of fear of isolating many of their voters. The Catholic rhetoric mixed with the United Nation’s human rights standard has created quite a turbulent divide among Irish opinions. Although many believe in legalizing abortion, the Church was done a good job creating fear around what could happen to the ‘Irish family’ and the nation’s identity. As more and more Irish citizens become informed on this topic and liberate themselves from this fear, more and more Pro-Choice politicians will be more willing to stand up for change.
Ireland continues to ignore the UN’s criticism of its abortion laws and request to make changes to meet the International human rights standard. Maintaining Ireland’s national identity that was created during the Devotional Revolution is one reason for the government’s reluctance, however, this identity maintenance relies heavily on women and controlling their sexual freedom. Keeping a tight grasp on this patriarchal identity is not worth the material repercussions that Irish women have faced throughout the years including, fear, repression, discrimination, stigmatization and even death.
Another reason for keeping abortion illegal in Ireland is the relentless politicised attack on sex, which is experienced particularly by women all around the world. There have been numerous violent attacks on abortion clinics in the U.S. by Christian extremists who claim to be ‘Pro-Life’, yet their actions discredit their ‘Pro-Life’ stance and instead reveal a wider issue of hatred over women’s autonomy. This is also proven by the government’s (both American and Irish) reluctance to implement effective and comprehensive sex education, and better access to emergency contraception, despite ample evidence that links these with lower unplanned pregnancy rates.
There is a fear among the Irish people that legalized abortion could mean more careless sexual activity and the damaging of Irish families – reflections of Irish morality. And while both are genuine concerns, studies have shown that making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions. It only increases the chance of suffering and even death. If more Irish citizens realize these facts and show greater support for women’s reproductive rights in Ireland, Pro-Choice politicians will be more likely to stand up for this view without fear of isolating a significant chunk of their voters.
The first place to make change is by holding a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution on abortion. But meeting the standards of the UN requires a lot more significant change than that. Abortion rights requires more support from the Irish people, and eliminate the stigma and discrimination that is currently attached to it. Comprehensive and effective sex education needs to be implemented in schools. Contraception needs to be easily accessible and affordable for everyone. Illegal abortions in Ireland is more about the relentless control over sex and women’s sexuality than anything else. To legalize abortion would mean taking another great stride towards a more equal Ireland.