Irish and British women must unite in the battle for reproductive rights, argue Ariel Silvera and Sinead Ahern, as they sketch out the history of abortion in Ireland and the UK
As oppression has gone global, so too has the struggle against it – including feminism’s battle for reproductive rights. Reproductive rights guarantee individuals free choice on the number and spacing of their children. Any call for reproductive rights is a call for accessible, accurate sex education, affordable access to a range of contraceptive methods, supports for parents and, most controversial of all, the right to an abortion. The fight for reproductive rights is an ongoing and worldwide struggle. Even in countries such as France and the Netherlands, where abortion services are fully integrated into the public health system, abortion is under attack. Great Britain is no exception.
As feminists, it is in our best interest to rally with our fellow activists in this campaign. In this article, we want to focus on what’s closest to our experience, which is the issue of reproductive rights in the Republic of Ireland, and its inextricable link to the UK. I hope to show the commonalities in these struggles, highlighting absurdities such as the Northern Irish situation along the way.
The United Kingdom and Ireland have a long history of connections, stemming mostly from the long-lived status of Ireland as a British colony. Even after Ireland began existing as a separate sociopolitical entity, the Republic has always kept a link with the larger power, often adopting similar legislation. The propagation of British economic interests in the Republic is another example.
However, independence brought with it the installation of a regime which, while sovereign, was just as intent on oppressing the majority. Through a strong anti-urban, Catholic ideology, Irish society found itself under the yoke once more, only this time it was under the idea that this was the “true” Ireland.
This “true” Ireland, of course, didn’t exist: an Ireland that was completely Catholic and without sin. In this Ireland, people obeyed the parish priest. People didn’t have sex until marriage, and single mothers and homosexuality were unthinkable. Where all poverty, with no exception, was the fault of the British occupation of the land, not of any failed government policy after the fact.
It is the myth of the ‘true’ Ireland which has bitten Irish feminism, and indeed all progressive activism, in the arse.
Catholicism left in Ireland a legacy of silence. Women’s sexuality was tightly regulated, with families voluntarily committing single mothers to convents that could only be compared with labour camps. Contraception, divorce and homosexuality were all illegal. Many of these regulations were to associated with the “special position” occupied by the Roman Catholic Church “as the guardian of the Faith” under the new constitution. This document also obliged the state to “protect the family” and “to ensure economic circumstances do not oblige a mother to work outside of the home”. A woman’s proper place in the “true Ireland”.
The shadow cast by conservative Catholic values was to colour many of the laws passed in 20th century Ireland. In 1967, when the UK legalised abortion, on the other side of the Irish Sea the 1967 Criminal Amendment Act banned the sale of contraceptives in the Republic.
In the 1970s, amidst second-wave feminism, many Irish women began taking matters of reproductive rights in their own hands. The famous ‘condom trains’ travelled to Northern Ireland to procure condoms, and openly challenged Gardai (Irish police officers) to arrest them in central Dublin train stations. The first flake had fallen, and it would snowball into an avalanche.
Though these regulations eventually were discarded thanks to the courageous work of feminist and queer activists, abortion is still an issue. For the first 60 years of its independence, the issue of abortion was largely avoided in Ireland. Ironically the only legislation governing abortion was a throw back of British rule – the 1861 Offensives Against the Person Act. Long since removed from the British statute books, 148 years later the 1861 act still operates in Ireland making abortion a criminal offense punishable with life in prison. These sentences apply to both the women procuring an abortion in the state or any one who helps her.
The conservative, religious groups were not however content with there simply being a legal impediment to women seeking abortion in Ireland. Following Ireland’s accession to what was to become the EU in 1973, many of Ireland’s conservative and patriarchal laws were removed following EU diktat. These included the marriage bar which prevented married women working in state institutions. EU pressure also resulted in a law ensuring that woman had the right to equal pay for equal work. Troubled by these developments, and concerns that laws restricting abortion may be challenged by the EU, pressure grew from a group known as the “pro-life amendment campaign” or PLAC. In 1983, following a campaign fiercely fought on both sides, the eighth amendment to the constitution of Ireland was passed. From the moment of conception, a fetus had the same rights as the woman who carried it. Despite successive referendums, this clause has remained.
One of the key battle grounds in the Irish fight for reproductive rights has been that of information. After the eighth amendment was passed, anti-choice groups such as SPUC (society for the protection of the unborn child) launched legal campaigns arguing that even information on abortion was unconstitutional. No-one was safe from the campaign to block women’s access to information on abortion.
Issues of Marie-Claire and Cosmopolitan magazine carrying ads for clinics in the UK were printed with blank pages, censored for an Irish audience. Text books on women’s health such as Our Bodies, Our Selves, which mentioned abortion were removed from public libraries. Then SPUC went after the counseling agencies and the student unions.
A high court ruling stopped the Well Woman clinic and open-door counseling services providing the names and numbers of abortion clinics abroad. In defiance of a high court injunction, however, the student unions continued to provide abortion information through their offices and in student welfare booklets. This act of rebellion against those blocking access to information was to trigger a legal battle that was to continue for years and was to make its way as far as the European courts. Eventually, this battle ended when the right to information was enshrined in the Irish constitution after a 1993 referendum.
The 1993 referendum was triggered when the country was electrified and divided by the now infamous ‘X’ case. At the centre of this case was a teenager who was pregnant as a result of a rape, and was seeking to travel to the UK for a termination. The girl’s parents, having brought her to the UK for the termination asked Gardai investigating the rape if tissue from the aborted foetus could be used as evidence against the perpetrator.
Rather than helping the young woman, however, the then Attorney General attained a high court injunction forcing the young woman and her family to return to Ireland. The courts ruled that the girl could not be allowed to travel for a termination and she was required to stay in the country for nine months. This ruling sparked one of the largest mobilisations supporting reproductive rights in Irish history.
Within days of this ruling Dublin’s main thoroughfare was thronged with activists, students, doctors, cleaners, teachers, people from all walks of life horrified that this young girl was being forced to continue with her pregnancy.
Following this public outcry, the courts ruled that when there was “a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct to the health, of the mother” women had the constitutional right to an aboriton.
Although the ruling made it permissible for the termination to occur even in Ireland, it is doubtful that any doctor would have performed the procedure, as most hospitals are either run or owned by the Catholic Church. In addition, the medical council of Ireland, which has a strong conservative wing, still describes carrying out an abortion as serious malpractice.
The X case sparked two referendums, which enshrined the right to travel and the right of information. However, there has still been no legislation specifying under which conditions an abortion may be carried out in Ireland.
And so Irish women still travel instead of having an abortion safely where they live. Except those who are vulnerable, those who wish to procure an abortion but don’t have the means and thus stay silent. Every now and again, a case surfaces, such as the 1997 ‘C’ case, where another young victim of rape had to go through the courts to ensure her right to travel. In this case, the person in question was under the care of the state. While the court ruled that C could travel, this was only because C was considered to be at risk of suicide. In practice, however, the court upheld the right of the state to prevent a person in care from travelling if their life was not at risk, at the discretion of the state care agency.
Unfortunately in Ireland, when it comes to the issue of abortion plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). In 2007, another young woman, known as ‘Miss D’, found herself the centre of court proceedings and a media circus.The legacy of silence continued, as successive governments refused to enact legislation recommended from the ‘X’ case, rather opting to sweep the issue under the carpet.
The D case was similar to the C case, but with the difference that D’s family wanted her to travel, but her social workers did not. In court with her head held high, D had to present her case against a state-appointed lawyer who represented… the foetus. Miss D was allowed to travel, but the matter is still not in the law books.
The situation has remained the same for too long.
Reproductive health has for a long time been off the agenda for most of the mainstream political parties, where silence and inertia are the rule rather than the exception. During the 2007 general election, which took place at the peak of the ‘Miss D’ case, even the only openly pro-choice political party, Labour, did not comment on the elephant in the room that is the abortion debate. According to statistics published by the UK’s Department of Health, in 2007 more than 4,000 Irish women procured abortions in Britain. This is 66% of the abortions procured by women who are not UK citizens, and only contains women who stated their nationality or gave an Irish address. The number is probably greater. The documentary Like a Ship in the Night covers the stigma associated with abortions in Ireland, following in the legacy of silence.
We hope that this legacy is nearing this end, as the hard work of pro-choice activists bears fruit. A number of groups operate in Ireland, based on all major cities and with strong showings at protests and demonstrations, including Choice Ireland, Cork Women’s Right to Choose, Alliance for Choice, Safe and Legal in Ireland and Belfast Alliance for Choice. Other local feminist groups, such as RAG Dublin and LashBack, are also contributing to this struggle.
The time is now, as the right to choose is attacked in the UK just as it hasn’t been won in Ireland, for us all to unite. It’s time to bring back the support networks that once existed for Irish women travelling to Britain. Time to bring the 1967 Abortion act to Northern Ireland, where the bigotry and conservatism of its religious ruling class has harmed Northern Irish women for too long. It’s time for Ireland to stop sending women packing.
Ariel Silvera is a pro-choice, feminist and queer activist residing in Dublin. She splits her time between working in the videogame industry, blogging about queerness in Anime, and reading way too many comics
Sinead Ahern is a pro-choice activist, feminist and psychologist. She loves her cats and sci-fi very dearly