Irish at Heart: Ireland’s Long Fight for Reproductive Freedom

Irish at Heart: Ireland’s Long Fight for Reproductive Freedom
By Natalie Keller

The latest buzz from D.C. has brought reproductive rights to the forefront of my mind. With the historic Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade being called into question in the United States, it can be illuminating to learn how other countries have struggled to obtain abortion rights — and what their trajectory might tell us about our own in a post-Roe world.

Ireland’s battle for reproductive rights has been an uphill one. Abortion was first banned in Ireland through the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861, and became law in 1922, when Ireland won independence from the United Kingdom. Later in the twentieth century, when other Western countries began legalizing abortion, Catholic organizations feared similar progress in Ireland and formed the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, which aimed to embed an abortion ban into the nation’s very constitution. And they achieved just that: in 1983, Ireland’s eighth constitutional referendum was passed, which “[acknowledged] the right to life of the unburn and [gave] due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.”
Hypocrisy and Death
Nowhere was this statement more hypocritical than in the case of a 14-year-old rape victim in 1992 who testified in court that she was contemplating suicide for being forced to carry her abuser’s child. The judge did not grant her permission for an abortion — instead, he banned her from leaving Ireland for nine months, effectively barring her from seeking an abortion abroad.
The story of Savita Halappanavar is even more disturbing. At seventeen weeks pregnant, she sought treatment at a hospital in Galway after her body began to miscarry. Wracked with pain and infection, she begged the doctors to perform an abortion and save her life — but because the fetus still had a detectable heartbeat, the doctors couldn’t intervene.
By the time the fetal heartbeat failed, the infection in Halappanavar’s uterus had spread to her blood. After four days in intensive care, her organs failed, and she died. If the law truly granted due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, Savita Halappanavar would still be walking among us today.
Halappanavar’s death became a rallying point for pro-choice activists in Ireland as publicity surrounding the case exploded. Thanks to a fresh wave of activism, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act became law in 2013. This was a victory, but not an all-encompassing one. While the law permitted abortions that would save the mother’s life, all other kinds of abortion remained criminalized.
The Irish people continued to advocate for a woman’s right to choose, and five years later, in 2018, a referendum repealed the Eighth Amendment by an overwhelming majority of 66% to 34%.
Abortions Barriers to the Marginalized
With costs covered by the public health service, abortions are now legal in Ireland during the first trimester, and at any point if the mother’s life is endangered. But the battle is not entirely won. Although medically unnecessary, the law stipulates a three-day waiting period after requesting an abortion and having the gestational age of the fetus certified by a doctor. In 2019, the Abortion Support Network reported that twenty-five people in Ireland were turned away from the abortion service at fewer than three days past the legal limit. If not for the mandatory waiting period, those twenty-five people would have qualified for legal abortion.
And, as in America, marginalized groups face the highest hurdles when it comes to accessing safe abortion. The Conversation reports that “the new Irish law is especially burdensome for poor women, migrant women, asylum seekers, Irish Travelers, and other marginalized groups who already experience barriers on their mobility and access to medical care. Such women might struggle to afford to travel for multiple clinic visits. And migrants in Ireland who miss the 12-week legal limit will face additional [barriers] because they are required to obtain a travel visa for England or the Netherlands.”
Similarly, if Roe v. Wade is overturned in the U.S. and abortion regulations are handed to the states, marginalized women may not have the financial resources or transportation to seek abortion outside their home state while their more privileged counterparts cross state borders to end unwanted pregnancies.
The Line Between Government and Religion
Just last month, the Irish government considered a proposal to grant control of a proposed $840 million state-funded maternity hospital to a charity run by Catholic nuns. The decision has been delayed amid concerns that religious doctrine will limit abortions at an establishment funded by public tax dollars. The line between government and religion, here and in Ireland, is perpetually blurred.
There is still work to be done. Indeed, when it comes to reproductive freedom, it seems the work is never finished. However, Ireland is moving in the right direction, while our own country seems poised to move backwards. So, what can we learn here? What kind of future can we envision for reproductive freedom and women’s rights in the United States? The answer, perhaps, is to look again to Ireland.
Ireland’s Example
Julie F. Kay writes in The Hill, “Ireland offers a human-rights-infused way forward for abortion rights in the U.S. and indeed globally. After 35 years of a regime that banned all abortion, Ireland now provides safe, legal and funded services throughout the first trimester of pregnancy. American abortion activists rallying to “Save Roe” would do well to look across the pond for inspiration and examples of successful human-rights-based strategies… [which] combined human rights litigation, political activism, and mass protests; a trinity of strategies that deserves U.S. attention.”
Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” These are the words I turn to in times of adversity, that give me strength when human rights and dignity are challenged in the country I love. To those feeling despair and hopelessness in the face of decisions by extremist minorities, know this: the battle has been fought and won before, and it will be won again when we stand together and demand justice for women everywhere.
Sources consulted:

  1. An Irish Tale of Warning on American Abortion by Julie F. Kay, The Hill.
  2. What Ireland’s history with abortion might teach us about a post-Roe America by Gretchen E. Ely, PBS NewsHour.
  3. In Ireland, Abortion Rights Activists Oppose a Hospital Deal by Ed O’Loughlin, The New York Times.
  4. One year on, it’s clear that the new Irish abortion services have serious limitations by Sydney Calkin, The Conversation.

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