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Ireland and abortion: something’s got to give

Catholic morals were deeply embedded in Irish society by the theocracy from which Ireland is only now beginning to shake itself loose. Since the middle of the nineteeth century, the Catholic Church took on those responsibilities of the state that were surrendered by England, primarily those concerning education and health.

The Church’s position was solidified after Irish independence, and while the 1937, Constitution granted freedom of religion, it also recognised the “special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church.” Catholicism and nationalism were tightly linked in the struggle for Irish freedom.

The dominion of the Catholic Church led to the culture of silence around the torture, rape and slavery of children and women by religious congregations and clerics. It was only in the 1970s, with the rise of feminism and freer economic policies, that the iron fist of the Catholic Church loosened around the collective neck of the Irish people.

Catholic dogma informed the law and until recently contraception, divorce and homosexual acts were illegal. The Church censored films and books, opposed free education and promoted the rights of the unborn over the rights of the mothers.

Abortion is a contentious issue in Ireland. An amendment to the Constitution made it legal in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. There is no provision for the health of the mother, only the life of the mother. To date, there have been two referendums on abortion and both were defeated.

While abortion is only publicly discussed by pro-life extremists, the “Irish solution to an Irish problem” involves women travelling to the United Kingdom to get abortions, because no abortions are performed in Northern Ireland.

At least 123,258 women travelled from Ireland to the UK for abortions between January 1980 and December 2005.

5,585 women travelled to the UK for abortions in 2005. Women aged between 20 – 30 years represented the majority of those who travelled to Britain for abortion services in 2004.

These figures undercount the amount of women travelling to the UK for abortions as they only include those who choose to give Irish addresses to clinics at which they obtain abortion services.

Abortion is yet again a hot topic. Three women took a case to the European Court of Human Rights. They maintain that abortion restrictions in this country have jeopardised their health and violated their human rights. All three women submitting the case to Strasbourg decided to travel to England to have an abortion:

* Applicant A ran the risk of an ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus develops outside the womb. She had taken emergency contraception the day after intercourse, but was advised by two different doctors that it had not only failed, but had given rise to a significant risk of an ectopic pregnancy.

* Applicant B had undergone chemotherapy for cancer treatment. She was unable to find a doctor willing to make a determination about whether her life would be at risk if she continued to term, or to give her clear advice as to how the foetus might have been affected.

* Applicant C is a woman whose four children had been placed in foster care as a result of problems she faced as an alcoholic and because she was unable to cope, was unmarried, unemployed and living in poverty.

Forcing women to travel for abortions is not only costly and time-consuming, but it alienates and stigmatises women who seek to terminate a fetus. The situation leaves women without support or post-abortion counselling. This is profoundly sexist and adds unnecessary complications to a stressful time.

The The Safe and Legal (in Ireland) Abortion Rights Campaign has made a series of videos to combat stigma and to support the three women.

The second reason why abortion is in news is the publication of a survey in the Irish Examiner found that three in five 18-35 year olds believe abortion should be legalised and that 10% of 18-34 year olds has been involved in a relationship where an abortion took place.

To my knowledge, this is the first survey that shows a majority in favour of legalising abortion. It appears that Irish people today just get on with what they have to do and avail of services overseas. But that is not a politically tenable position for a modern democratic society. A modern democracy must legislate for reality rather than the preferred vision of nubile but chaste Irish maidens dancing at the crossroads.

I am not aware of any declared pro-choice politicians, but the right of a woman to control her own body is a human right. Ireland cannot long remain in the dark ages.

8 thoughts on “Ireland and abortion: something’s got to give

  1. Pingback: I Blog for Choice, because I am not a broodmare, and neither is anyone else « Natalia Antonova
  2. Ireland was never a theocracy. Exaggerating the power of the Catholic Church is unhelpful. The problem was that the post-revolutionary ruling class failed to universalise and handed-over education, healthcare etc. to the Church because they were incapable of doing it themselves. Ireland’s backwardness is best understood as the result of economic underdevelopment and post-colonial malaise, partition was the biggest and most obvious result of which.

  3. If the only option available was a parochial education, and only those who were educated in Catholic schools became leaders, I would argue that Ireland is a de facto theocracy.

  4. @Jason While Ireland was never a de jure theocracy, de facto it was. There was no handover. The church took responsibility for education off the British state before independence and still maintains the vast majority of schools. Yes it was funded by the state but there is no handoff. Underestimating the power of the RCC denies the truth. When church leaders exercise power over the state through influence. The state banned books, films, behaviour and sexuality but the RCC was the puppeteer.

    @Politicalguineapig well if you follow that to its logical conclusion we live in a theocracy at present. While I see the tentacles of the RCC all over society, it has lost significant power.

    Nevertheless with Ministers and higher civil servants involved in secret Catholic societies, legislation decidedly follows Catholic dogma. In that sense yeah we live in a de facto theocracy.

  5. This article has an obvious anti catholic slant. The idea that a European country was highly Catholic in the 18 and 1900s is not abnormal. Catholicism was the foundation for Western Civilization and remained a powerful cultural force in large swaths of Europe for over 1,500 years right into the 20th century.

    As for abortion, the Irish people actually voted on the current legislation. They voted to protect the unborn in the 1980s in a democratic referendum. Modern 3D ultrasounds underscore the idea that growing babies in the womb are human beings worthy of life.

    Ireland is not anti woman. Pregnant women in Ireland have access to high quality health care and prenatal care. The infant mortality rate and rate of complications in pregnancy is lower in Ireland than in the UK, where abortion is legal.
    Abortion has consequences such as dramatically higher risk of later premature births. Not suprisingly the UK has more premature births per capta than Ireland. Higher rates of depression, drug use, suicide and alcoholism have also now been linked to abortion in New Zealand studies that control for previous health problems.

    This article simply attacks a small number of bad Catholics and tries to say that the religion that helped form Irish identity for 1,600 years is somehow evil because of the actions of a minority of corrupt priests and nuns and catholic lay people in the 20th century. What about all the good clergy? What about the ordinary Catholic man or woman who sincerely believes that all human beings, born and unborn has a right to life?

  6. I really don’t see why religion should be considered a major factor regarding abortion in Ireland . Roman Catholic views on contraception or sex before marraige are no more practiced by the Irish than they are by the French or British. Besides all major religious demoninations in Ireland, including Muslims are oposed to abortion, it’s not just a Catholic thing. Plenty of agnostics and atheists are deeply opposed to abortion.

    Irish women have a low abortion rate, about 6,000 per annum.Per capita this is one of the lowest in the world, about 70% lower that of the UK’s. There are several studies that show that many women who have had abortions suffer psychological trauma and lasting damage. Surely it is better for women’s welfare to keep the abortion rate as low as possible. Providing abortion in Ireland can only increase it’s incidence.

    “The right of a woman to control her own body is a human right” . Well yes but, that’s just a slogan. Rights are not absolute, even in Britain there are time limits on abortion, so a heavily pregnant woman who requests an abortion in Britain has a limit on her right to control her own body.

    There are too many wild, unsubstantiated points in your article to mention, but I must take issue with, “until recently, contraception ,divorce and homosexual acts were illegal”. Contraception was made legal in the early 1980’s, that’s not today or yesterday. As for homosexuality, that was legalised some 20 years ago, and no homosexual would have been prosecuted in the past 50 years at least.

  7. The Irish reject Catholic views on many issues. Irish people support gay marriage strongly and adoption by same-sex couples yet remain opposedto abortion in most circumstances. Irish people do support abortion when the life of the mother is at risk.

    One cannot put opposition to abortion down purelyto religion. I am not Christian yet I think that abortion is the ending of a human life. We, as human beings, have a moral obligation to defend the most vunlerable whilst respecting those with whom we disagree.

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