Ireland: No ifs, no buts … a woman’s right to choose

Controversy over abortion continues to reverberate throughout Irish society, writes Anne McShane

At the time of writing, the government is due to announce details of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, which will be voted on by the Dáil in July. This proposed legislation will allow for abortion where a woman’s life is at immediate risk from the pregnancy, including by suicide. Procuring an abortion will continue to be a criminal offence, punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. This applies both to the woman and medical staff involved - including presumably the many women who now use the internet to obtain the abortion pill. To avoid a criminal conviction, a woman will need to be at substantial risk of death unless a termination is carried out. This will have to be assessed by two medical experts if the risk is physical, and three - two psychiatrists and an obstetrician - if it is that of suicide.

The medical establishment is split right down the middle and doctors who support the pro-life lobby have said that abortion ought never to be allowed even to prevent suicide. They may, on the other hand, be willing to consider detention under mental health legislation in a psychiatric ward in such cases. Desperate women who have not had the money or the contacts to get an abortion abroad will be forced to endure intensive cross-examination by doctors. Anthony McCarthy, a progressive psychiatrist based at the National Maternity Hospital, has come out strongly against the government for stigmatising women. Suicidal pregnant women will be treated with suspicion, instead of compassion.

McCarthy has also argued that the idea that a pregnant woman would not kill herself is nonsense. In the past ,10% of all women who committed suicide in Ireland were pregnant. In his experience, no woman who cannot cope with a pregnancy will put herself through torturous and invasive cross-examination by doctors if she has another way out. Especially as she could find herself being committed to a psychiatric ward if the examining doctors decide that she is suicidal, yet abortion is not an ‘appropriate treatment’.

This legislation will make very little practical difference to those who obtain the abortion pill illegally via the web - or to the thousands of Irish women who travel abroad every year to end their pregnancy. The ones most affected will be the desperate and vulnerable who are unable to travel. The proposed legislation is so restrictive that even Michael Martin, the hard-line anti-abortion leader of the opposition Fianna Fáil, has strongly recommended that his party vote for the bill. Martin has said that its proposals are even more limiting than the status quo - “One of the concerns was that it will lead to abortion on demand. I don’t think it will do that.”1 He held one-to-one meetings with Fianna Fáil TDs to alleviate their concerns. However, under pressure from the pro-life lobby and unable to obtain unanimity, he has now backed down and allowed a free vote.

This greatly pleased the Catholic church, which has been pushing hard for a free vote so as to make it possible to defeat the legislation. In a statement issued this week, the Catholic bishops of Ireland warned that for “the first time legislation will be enacted permitting the deliberate and intentional killing of an unborn child. This represents a radical change. Every citizen, not just people of faith, should be deeply concerned.”2

The statement goes on to repeat the claims that abortion can never be an option for suicidal pregnant women and to call on “our priests and people to continue to pray the ‘Choose life’ prayer at mass and in the home that the dignity and value of all human life will continue to be upheld in this country”.

The campaign against abortion, which saw 30,000 pro-life demonstrators in a march in Dublin last weekend, is growing in confidence. A well-funded advertising campaign, which depicts foetuses as cute little babies, is primed to take advantage of every opportunity to drive the message home. Government ministers have been targeted with hate mail and taoiseach Enda Kenny said he been branded a child murderer and received letters written in blood and threatening phone calls. The church is determined to whip up an atmosphere of fear.

Step forward?

In the face of such intimidation it is perhaps understandable that some pro-choice activists see the present legislation as a step forward. I have been told on many occasions that it is expecting too much to believe that Ireland can change overnight. The Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill will be part of an incremental approach to full choice - eventually.

I do not accept this argument. I believe that we need to fight conservative attitudes with demands that emphasise the right for a woman to exercise complete choice in respect of her own body. Recent opinion polls have shown a consistent majority in favour of extending abortion on the grounds of health, rape or sexual abuse, or unviable pregnancies. But, even more importantly, there has been a substantial minority - between 25% and 30% - who favour abortion on the grounds of choice. It is not the population of Ireland that is conservative, but the church and state. It is their power that we must challenge.

The proposed legislation would do nothing for women like Savita Halappanavar, who died on October 28 2012 at Galway General Hospital. Savita was refused an abortion, although the foetus she was carrying was unviable. She was told she could not have a termination until the foetus had died inside her - she was informed that this was because Ireland is a Catholic country. She and her husband begged for an abortion, but she was forced to lie in agony - until such time as she went into toxic shock and died. There would be no change for such women. They would still not be allowed an abortion unless doctors were certain their lives were at risk - and then it could well be too late.

There is something wrong with a society that says a woman must be close to death before the unviable foetus she is carrying can be removed. Men never suffer such discrimination in medical treatment. There is something wrong when the Catholic church of all things, with its notorious history of abusing both women and children, has the gall to lecture Irish people on humanity. They preach from the pulpits to people who have witnessed the systematic sexual abuse of children in state-funded religious schools and orphanages. We all know about the women who were locked up in Magdalene laundries, forced to work as unpaid slaves and subjected to physical and psychological abuse.

We know too of the thousands of unmarried mothers whose children were stolen from them in the infamous mother and baby homes. These women were treated as social outcasts and humiliated - their children sent off to a ‘more deserving’, respectable married couple. They have yet to receive recognition of the injustice done to them by the Catholic church and state. It is quite staggering that such institutions can have the arrogance to demand that women are deprived of even the most basic rights.

Shameful history

We need to remember the historic refusal to grant even the smallest concession. In 1983 a Fianna Gael-Labour coalition held a referendum to introduce a constitutional ban on abortion. Voters were mobilised by church and state and, in a 53% turnout, 67% voted in favour of the ban. The eighth amendment stated that the constitution “acknowledged the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal life of the mother”. Irish women were told in no uncertain terms that a foetus had the legal ‘right’ to insist on being born. They were prisoners of their own bodies.

The 1980s was a time of intense repression for Irish women. It was the time of the ‘Kerry babies’ scandal, when in 1983 Joanne Hayes, a young unmarried woman, was accused of the murder of two infants. The gardaí insisted that she had got rid of them after becoming pregnant simultaneously by two different men. This bizarre claim was actually taken seriously and Joanne Hayes was pilloried for her evil promiscuity. The next year Anne Lovett, a 15-year-old girl, died giving birth alone in appalling circumstances at a religious grotto in rural Longford. These cases reflected the degree of discrimination and victimisation. All the women were expected to have babies, but the unmarried women were to endure the additional burden of disgrace and the expectation that they would give their baby up for adoption. Women who refused to buckle and kept their children were often told that they would not be baptised alongside those of decent married couples. They were treated as social outcasts.

The church and state came under pressure in 1992 when the supreme court decided in Attorney general v X that abortion should be allowed where a woman’s life is at risk, including by suicide. Later that year a Fianna Fáil government tried to reverse the ruling through the 12th amendment to specifically exclude suicide as a ground for abortion. This was rejected by 65% in a 68% referendum turnout, and another amendment was passed allowing the distribution of information on abortion facilities abroad. Fianna Fáil attempted to remove suicide as a ground once again in 2002, through another referendum. The 26th amendment was a carrot-and-stick approach which stated that abortion could be allowed if there was risk to life - but this could not include the threat of suicide. It also proposed extending prison sentences to 12 years for unlawful abortions. This proposal was narrowly defeated.

Such a ruling would normally have resulted in legislative change, but successive governments refused to act. In fact, Fianna Fáil attempted to see off the threat from ‘X’ by holding a referendum to specifically exclude suicide. In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights held that the Irish government had violated the Convention by failing to provide an accessible and effective procedure by which a woman can establish whether she qualifies for a legal abortion under current Irish law. Still the government dragged its feet and refused to act.

Clare Daly TD then introduced a private members bill to legislate for X in early 2012. Her legislation was more liberal than the current proposals. However, it did still restrict itself to allowing abortion when there was a threat to the woman’s life. She argued that her aim was simply to put the issue on the agenda. She agreed that we needed a campaign to scrap the eighth amendment and provide abortion on the grounds of choice. Her proposed legislation was voted down by the government in November, with Labour TDs arguing that they wanted to wait the outcome of an expert committee. The government promised legislation.

Surely this was the right time to launch a campaign for a referendum to scrap the eighth amendment? I have been told that this would have been too radical and the right tactics are to relate to the existing legal process: ie, move forward within the law. The Catholic church does not think so. It is calling for pro-life doctors and nurses to refuse to perform abortions. It also wants a campaign of civil disobedience and has argued that the government should refuse to obey the ruling of the European Court. It is not bound by legality when it comes to maintaining women’s oppression.

Why then are we hesitating? The pro-life lobby is now setting the agenda. In 2012, with the outrage over Savita’s death, it seemed the tide was turning. Certainly opinion polls have borne that out. But we cannot take anything for granted. Conservative forces are out to win hearts and minds. We need to do the same.

There is a continuing debate among pro-choice activists. The Abortion Papers, a series of essays on the history of the struggle, is shortly to be published and various meetings are being held around its launch. There will also be a national meeting on June 22 at the Teachers Club in Dublin organised by Action for Choice, which is working to link up the campaigns. This will be an important opportunity to review the situation we find ourselves in. It will also provide the chance to launch a bold campaign to fight for a woman’s right to choose.

I would encourage all activists in Ireland to attend and to take the opportunity to fight for real change. Women should no longer be treated as second-class citizens.



1. www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/martin-backs-proposed-bill-on-abortion-232223.html.

2. www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/catholic-bishops-accuse-government-of-misleading-people-on-abortion-1.1424612.