The night the Savita Halappanavar story broke in November 2012, I read the scant details on my phone, lay back in bed and closed my eyes. Halappanavar, a 31-year-old woman, was seventeen weeks pregnant when she was admitted to hospital where she repeatedly asked for an abortion. A midwife told her, ‘this is a Catholic country’. As she miscarried, and slipped into septic shock, her organs failed and she suffered a cardiac arrest and died.
Living in the only democratic country in the world with a constitutional ban on abortion, I felt an acute and visceral shame. Like many more, I walked silently, spontaneously, towards the preservers of the laws that killed Savita. On a Wednesday evening, 2,000 people stood outside Leinster House, where the Irish parliament sits, in vigil for her death. That Saturday, thousands and thousands more marched through Dublin. Some carried candles. Some cried. Some held A4 portraits of Savita. We knew her name. Many held placards declaring ‘Never Again’.
The impact of Halappanavar’s death, even in a country that does everything it can to ignore the issue of abortion, was huge. The political establishment was finally moved to legislate and in 2013 parliament voted through the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. This was a piece of legislation based on the ‘X Case’ from 1992, a Supreme Court case involving a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped and became pregnant. The girl, ‘X’, was suicidal, and intended to travel with her family to Britain for an abortion. A High Court injunction declared she could not go, but when that injunction was appealed to the Supreme Court it was overturned.
For the pro-life movement, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was worrying: a chink in the armour of the ban on abortion. For the pro-choice movement, the new legislation did not go far enough. The Act allows for abortion where there is a risk of death from physical illness during pregnancy, as long as two doctors, including an obstetrician and a physician whose expertise is relevant to the illness, agree. If the physical illness occurs in an emergency situation, only one physician need diagnose and carry out the procedure. If the risk is from suicide, three doctors including an obstetrician and two psychiatrists must concur in consultation with the woman’s GP. If a woman is refused an abortion, an appeal can be made to the Health Service Executive, after which two or three doctors from a panel of at least ten will review it. The legislation, like Ireland’s abortion laws before it was enacted, is messy and complicated, and as ever, does not allow a woman agency over her decision to terminate; instead she must be near death, and doctors get to make the call.
When the Yes Equality campaign created an unprecedented grassroots movement canvassing for marriage equality in Ireland, the idea at its core was a simple one: have conversations. All across the country, LGBT people spoke to their families, friends, coworkers and anyone else who would listen to their experiences. We knocked on doors and made phone calls and handed out flyers outside gaelic football, rugby, soccer, and hurling stadiums. The shame and culture of silence that typified homosexuality in Ireland evaporated. The opposition could campaign all they liked, and they did, well-funded and bolstered by the biggest weapon in their arsenal, the Catholic Church. But it is incredibly difficult to argue an abstract when it is met with real human experience. The lives of lesbian and gay couples were being debated in the media and at mass, but those couples were also there to tell their stories in the flesh.
If one thing has helped maintain Ireland’s archaic abortion laws, it’s the culture of silence that surrounds them. That silence can only be broken by those brave enough to step forward and share their own stories. At the Electric Picnic festival in September 2015, comedian Tara Flynn revealed she’d had an abortion. In Ireland, that is still a rare thing for a woman to do publicly, never mind a woman who is well known. The atmosphere tensed when a young pro-life woman in the audience took the mike and spoke about the Planned Parenthood controversy – which surrounded the United State’s reproductive health service receiving financial reimbursement for foetal tissues and organs (a subsequent government investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood). She challenged the panel, which Tara Flynn was on, and shook as she spoke, nervous but determined.
Others continued to break the silence around abortion, bravely offering personal stories. In September, Roisin Ingle, whose hugely popular Irish Times column has made her a household name, wrote about her abortion. ‘Was I ashamed of it? No,’ she wrote, ‘Was I embarrassed? Not at all. Did I feel I’d done something wrong? Quite the opposite. What I had done was the right decision for me.’ Neither woman, when they spoke out, conformed to the narrative of abortion as something shameful. The only thing that was shameful was the situation Ireland’s laws had put them in.
Not long after, I was in a taxi on my way to Dublin Airport when a woman called Vanessa started talking on the radio station, Newstalk. She spoke eloquently about an abortion she had in England after she had been raped in Ireland. She was strong and unapologetic. The ground seemed to be shifting.
How did Ireland become such an anomaly in Western society? In 1983, the year I was born, a referendum was held introducing for the first time a constitutional ban on abortion, the Eighth Amendment. When Ireland gained independence from the UK in 1922, Victorian laws were still in effect. These included the Offences against the Person Act 1861, which prohibited abortion. In 1935, the Criminal Law Amendment Act came into force, prohibiting all types of contraception in Ireland: ‘It shall not be lawful for any person to sell, or expose, offer, advertise, or keep for sale or to import or attempt to import into Saorstát Eireann [the Irish Free State] for sale, any contraceptive.’ The UK passed the Abortion Act in 1967, legalising and regulating abortion there. In 1973, the landmark Roe vs Wade case in the US Supreme Court drew international attention. The pro-life lobby here must have wondered how a similar case would play out in the Irish courts. There was only one way to ensure legal abortion would not come to Irish shores, and that was constitutional change. This was assured by the Eighth Amendment, which became law after the 1983 referendum passed by a massive 67 per cent. This just over three decades ago – but if the past is said to be a different country, in Ireland it’s a different continent.
Until the Celtic Tiger prompted a wave of immigration to Ireland, the country was largely monocultural, lacking the ethnic or religious pluralism for the Catholic Church to have any true counterpoint or opposition. The demise of the Church’s influence began with the women’s rights movement in the seventies and continued with catastrophic child-abuse scandals, sidelining it as a moral authority. Nevertheless, its influence remains. The national broadcaster, RTE, still plays the Catholic call to prayer – the Angelus – twice a day, at noon and 6 p.m. It fought against the legalisation of divorce in the mid nineties, again against marriage equality more recently, and contests reproductive rights vigorously. The media’s obsession with ‘balance’ sees almost every broadcast story on abortion rights countered with a pro-life point of view. Many couples for whom religion is an afterthought still opt for church weddings, and many parents who aren’t practising Catholics continue to baptise their children in order to get them into local schools, 92 per cent of which remain under the patronage of the Catholic Church. Abortion is the Church’s last big fight. And they will go to war.
But now there is a new rallying cry: 62 per cent. This is the percentage by which the marriage referendum passed in 2015. Lesbian and gay marriage has nothing to do with abortion, of course, but marriage equality is a progressive issue. Irish Catholics who voted Yes ignored instruction from the Church. Walking around the count centre at the Royal Dublin Society as it became clear the Yes side was going to win, my mother muttered, ‘That’s it now’. I asked her what she meant. ‘The Church and the State. That’s gone, that’s the end of it now.’ As a Mass-attending Catholic in her sixties from rural Ireland, she saw those formerly knotted ties loosening before her eyes – first the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013, now equality in marriage. In Ireland, you grow up with things like the ‘X Case’ feeling like a dark part of history, only to realise how recent they are. This is a country that only criminalised rape in marriage in 1990, and closed its last Magdalene Laundry in 1996.
Inevitably, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act didn’t halt the potential for further grotesqueness. In 2014, Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland again wrote about how the act worked in relation to a new case. Ms Y arrived as an asylum seeker in Ireland in late March 2014. In early April, a health screening showed she was eight weeks pregnant, and the young woman said she had been raped in her home country. The weeks dragged on, and agencies communicated back and forth about the difficulties in getting documentation together for Ms Y to be able to travel out of Ireland for an abortion. She told a counsellor she would rather die than have the baby. The cost of her travelling for an abortion totalled about €1,300. As the personal and bureaucratic nightmare unfolded, Ms Y repeatedly articulated suicidal intentions. She was admitted to a mental health hospital, then a maternity hospital where a scan determined she was twenty-four weeks pregnant, such was the amount of time that had passed since she first presented. She refused food and fluids, and repeated suicidal intentions. On 6 August, five months after Ms Y said at the health screening that she could not have the baby, a caesarean section was performed in an Irish hospital and a baby boy was delivered.
A young rape victim who came to Ireland seeking asylum in huge distress, suicidal about her pregnancy, and so desperate as to go on hunger strike, ended up in a situation where she couldn’t travel to have the pregnancy terminated and had to carry the baby until a C-section was performed. This shows the extent of the brutal, protracted bureaucracy in which Ireland’s now-amended abortion laws were complicit. More than ever, the idea of bodily autonomy felt low down a list of priorities. The message was clear to Irish women: even if you come to this country seeking sanctuary, even if you are alone, even if you are raped, even if you want to kill yourself, even if you go on hunger strike, the medical choices about your body are not yours. Again, people took to the streets in protest.
‘Repeal The Eighth’ as a movement (and a hashtag) is growing, but politicians know the process of drafting legislation to regulate abortion in the absence of the Eighth Amendment will be a painstaking one. If a referendum does happen, the electorate will have to know what they are voting for. The campaign will need to be a single, focused one, but what that campaign looks like depends on what legislation will be in tow. For the marriage referendum, it was an easy yes or no answer, with the constitutional amendment a simple one extending marriage rights to same sex couples. The key is to keep abortion out of the Irish constitution altogether, but who knows what the related legislation would look like? The risk for the pro-choice movement is that more incremental changes will continue to delay the ultimate goal of free, safe and legal abortion services.
What’s the point of a referendum on abortion if women in Ireland have to continue to travel to the UK after it? The pro-life movement has a coherent goal and message: an outright ban on abortion, and anything else is murder. The pro-choice movement is much more nuanced, with differing opinions on the circumstances where women should be permitted to access abortion services and at what time in their pregnancy. In order for a cohesive campaign to emerge, we need to start talking honestly about what our opinions and concerns really are.
On the 6 May this year, seventy days after a general election, Enda Kenny, the leader of centre-right party Fine Gael, became the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected as Taoiseach. Ireland now has a minority Fine Gael government after the party reached an agreement with Fianna Fáil and secured the support of a handful of independents. Pro-choice campaigners were understandably concerned about a conservative administration, but during government formation talks, the Programme for Partnership committed to a citizens’ convention to examine the Eighth Amendment.
The first private abortion clinic in Belfast, Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, opened in 2012. Since then, it has been protested, and a leading anti-abortion campaigner has been convicted of harassing its director. Like in the Republic, abortion in Northern Ireland is extraordinarily restricted. Abortion is legal in the North, but only if the woman’s life or mental health is in danger, making abortion even in cases of rape or incest illegal. But at the end of November 2015, Belfast’s High Court found that denying an abortion to a woman in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities was a ‘gross interference with her personal autonomy’. The legal challenge was taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The judge also ruled that victims of rape and incest had their trauma compounded by the existing legislation: ‘She has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both,’ the judge said. And so abortion legislation in the North has been found to be incompatible with human rights, a decision that legislators will have to respond to, especially in a context where medics face life in prison if convicted of carrying out an illegal termination. Thousands of women in Northern Ireland have travelled for abortions in England over the decades, and if the North’s abortion laws change in response to this ruling, it will surely have knock-on effects on the Republic.
In April, abortion laws in Northern Ireland drew international outrage when a 21-year-old woman was given a three-month suspended prison sentence for taking abortion pills when she was 19 to terminate her pregnancy. Her flatmates called the police. Northern Ireland has the most severe criminal penalty for abortion in Europe, life imprisonment for a woman who undergoes an unlawful abortion and the same for anyone who assists her.
On Saturday 26 September, thousands of people gathered at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square wearing sunglasses and holding handmade signs. At the fourth annual March For Choice people of all ages and genders made their way to the top of O’Connell Street, walking past the statue of Charles Stewart Parnell where it is inscribed: ‘No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say to his country thus far shalt thou go and no further.’
Tara Flynn emcee’d somewhere in the distance; I.M.E.L.D.A. – Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion, a direct action feminist performance group – were dressed in their trademark red colours as bishops; Atheist Ireland unfurled a banner; a homemade National Union of Journalists banner sprung up; a group of Spanish women in their seventies had flown over to march in solidarity.
Walking down O’Connell Street, tourists applauded from the upper deck of an open-top sightseeing bus. A small group of young women chanted, ‘We’re black, we’re here, we’re queer’, as the march rounded the Liffey towards Pearse Street. A smattering of leftwing politicians weaved through the crowd. A chant that feels both archaic and urgent rang out, ‘GET YOUR ROSARIES OFF OUR OVARIES’. When the march concluded with speeches at Merrion Square, the politician Clare Daly spoke with anger to rapturous applause. For every politician who dreads abortion as an election issue, there were a thousand marching to make sure it would be.
How long can this sense of urgency be maintained? That’s something those who want abortion rights in Ireland are testing. In the past you could probably forgive politicians for avoiding the issue as a sign of pragmatism. Now it’s irritating, patronising, unacceptable. My optimism at that march quickly turns to frustration and anger when yet another politician doubts the likelihood of a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment, or pivots towards a pro-life stance, or just refuses to engage on an issue that has Europe and the UN shaking their head at our national inertia. ‘It’s not a finance minister’s area of responsibility,’ the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said in November, ‘and I won’t be saying anything.’
Some people in public life have been speaking out. In early May this year, the President’s wife, Sabina Higgins, spoke at a debate organised by the Nursing and Midwifery Board in Trinity College Dublin. ‘These really are outrages against women and outrages against the world and nature,’ she said, regarding women being made to carry a foetus with a fatal foetal abnormality to delivery. In a political climate where the Irish President – and by default their partner – is not meant to express opinions on politically sensitive issues of this nature, Higgins was criticised by pro-life groups, while others saw her unscripted remarks as a fair reflection of her feminist views. What this controversy showed more than anything, is the tightrope public figures continue to walk on when it comes to the issue. Remarks that would be seen as benign in other countries take over the news cycle here.
What does it mean to be a woman in Ireland? It means survival. It means ignoring the oppression and repression, and the legacy of imprisonment and slavery and abuse and ridicule. And occasionally it means shouting to be heard, shaking the cage from within. For too long, the desire to survive forced our heads down and shut us up. To recognise of the brutality of the past and the present feels painful, but it is a necessary pain. The ‘wounded deer leaps highest’, as Emily Dickinson wrote.
What does it mean to be a woman in Ireland? It means humour in the darkest of situations. It means solidarity. It means a rising. Who dares to tell new generations of Irish women that their bodies belong to a constitution, or a set of laws, or a Church many have forsaken? When Patrick Pearse gave the closing words of an oration at the graveside of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa one hundred years ago, the words rang so powerfully they compressed into the starting shot of the Rising of 1916. ‘They think that they have pacified Ireland,’ Pearse said. ‘They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’ Replace ‘Ireland’ with ‘women’. And so, we will rise. But we can’t do it on our own.
Photograph © Renee Summers