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.