Reproductive Justice
Abortion in Ireland: The More Things Change…

Abortion in Ireland: The More Things Change…

Last month, a handful of Irish women and men left Dublin on a unique bus tour. For two days, they traveled the country giving information on abortion pills — which are currently illegal in Ireland — to women. Organizer Rita Harrold said of the bus tour and the pro-choice campaign: “You know what? We aren’t living in 1950s anymore. We’re not going to support politicians that won’t let us make decisions about our own lives.” Providing women with the information they need to get abortifacient pills, argues Harrold and other activists, empowers them to control their fertility and manage their own health care, in private, even within a hostile and patriarchal Irish state.

Photo from on the “abortion pill bus.” (@Rita702/Twitter)
Photo from on the “abortion pill bus.” (@Rita702/Twitter)

Because abortion remains illegal in Ireland, between 3,000 and 7,000 Irish women travel annually to Britain to access legal terminations. They have done so consistently since 1967, when surgical abortion was decriminalized in Britain and what is known as the “abortion trail” began.1 Well before this, however, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Irish women attempted to end unwanted pregnancies. And the vast majority did so not through syringe or surgery, but via drugs. Indeed, most Irish women avoided instrumental or surgical abortion, which often involved greater costs, travel, higher risk of illness or death, as well as the involvement of a wider network of people and increased risk of exposure. Instead, they preferred to consume pills or tonics in private.

While the media only recently has highlighted the reality that some Irish women take illegal abortifacient drugs at home, court cases and newspapers reveal a long history of abortion via drugs. A County Monaghan coroner’s casebook from 1862 notes the death of Rose, a domestic servant, who consumed large amounts of juniper to induce miscarriage.2 In Waterford, 1878, a teenager named James D. was brought to trial for giving his cousin and lover, Bridget, an abortifacient drug, mixed in warm beer, that eventually killed her.3 A Donegal woman was brought up on criminal charges after she attempted miscarriage by taking “six pills, the nature of which is unknown, two Beecham’s pills, and a bottle of castor oil.”4

These methods also may have provided women with a sense of control over their reproductive lives in an era when even discussing fertility control was controversial. Indeed, abortion was often discussed in coded language as “menstrual regulation.” When women talked to each other, their partners, or to abortionists about terminating pregnancies, they often explained their “problem” as one of stopped or blocked menstruation and framed inducing miscarriage as attempting to restore health. One man, describing his initial meeting with Dublin abortionist William Coleman, later claimed that he had told Coleman: “my fiancée has missed two periods & that we … were anxious to know what is wrong.”5 People seeking terminations thus may have been following a centuries-old tradition of viewing abortion not as the murder of a fetus but as restoring menstruation and thus bringing a woman’s body back to health. Or, they may have been employing a deliberately ambiguous language to talk about abortion without actually mentioning it.

Women who believed that there was something wrong with their menstrual cycles, including an unwanted pregnancy, were bombarded with information about potential “cures.” From the late eighteenth century through the twentieth century, British and Irish newspapers advertised pills including Beecham’s, Towle’s, and Dr. Hooper’s, as cure-all remedies for “female” complaints.

(Irish Times, 1890)
(Irish Times, 1890)

An early twentieth-century advertisement for “Dr Patterson’s Famous Pills” promised that the “pink pills” — available in two strengths, “ordinary” and “special” — would remedy “irregularities of every description,” and could be used in cases in which “Pennyroyal and steel, Pil Cochiac, Bitter Apple,” all drugs used as abortifacients, failed.6 Today, women in countries where abortion remains illegal build on these traditions by purchasing abortifacient pills on the internet. For example, the website of the Dutch organization Women on Web allows women to order drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostal to induce miscarriage on their own.

Although abortion history is often viewed as one with many turning points and transformations — moving from herbal tonics to backstreet surgical methods to legalization — the main narrative of abortion in modern Ireland is actually one of continuity. In fact, the increased availability of pills on the internet has resulted in a return to more “traditional” abortion practices in recent years: more and more women are, once again, seeking abortifacients and home-based, self-induced abortions. In 2009, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB) confiscated over 1,200 abortion pills that were purchased online and imported illegally into Ireland. In 2013, stickers advertising “safe abortion with pills” found their way onto Dublin streetlamps. Abortion rights organization Choice Ireland argues that there is an “abortion pill black market” currently in Ireland, thriving during the economic crisis when it is more feasible for women to purchase pills than travel to Britain for a surgical abortion.

In the late autumn of 2015, when the “abortion pill bus” left Dublin on its journey, Ireland’s Life Institute accused its organizers, ROSA (For Reproductive Rights, Against Oppression, Sexism, and Austerity) of being “abortion extremists” who staged a dangerous “stunt” that was “playing fast and loose with women’s lives.” Even a cursory glance at Ireland’s history reveals a more complicated reality. When the abortion bus began its travels, it not only referenced the desperate journeys that thousands of Irish women take every year as they travel to Britain for safe abortion procedures, but it also tapped into a forgotten history, reminding us of past decades when women consumed pills and potions to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies. The fact that continuity, rather than change, remains the central narrative in Irish abortion history reflects the failure of the Irish state not only in grappling with present realities but also to acknowledge, understand, and come to terms with its past.

Further Reading

Sandra McAvoy, “Before Cadden: Abortion in Mid-Twentieth-Century Ireland,” in The Lost Decade: Ireland in the 1950s, ed. Dermot Keogh, Finbarr O’Shea, and Carmel Quinlan (Cork: Mercier Press, 2004), 147-163.

Leanne McCormick, “‘No Sense of Wrongdoing’: Abortion in Belfast 1917-1967,” Journal of Social History 49, 1 (2015): 125-148.

Cliona Rattigan, “‘Crimes of Passion of the Worst Character’: Abortion Cases and Gender in Ireland, 1925-50,” in Gender and Power in Irish History, ed. Maryann Gialenella Valiulis (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009), 115-139.

John Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Ann Rossiter, Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The “Abortion Trail” and the Making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000. London: Iasc Publishing, 2009.

Medb Ruane, The Irish Journey: Women’s Stories of Abortion (Dublin: Irish Family Planning Association, 2000).


  1. Irish Family Planning Association; Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Chapter 100 24 and 25 Vict, 1861, The National Archives; Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 [PDF], No. 35/2013, Order 2013, Irish Statute Book. Return to text.
  2. Michelle McGoff-McCann, Melancholy Madness: A Coroner’s Casebook (Cork: Mercier Press, 2003), 73. Return to text.
  3. Waterford News, May 31, 1878. Return to text.
  4. State Files at Circuit Court, Donegal, May 26, 1932, National Archives, Dublin. Return to text.
  5. Central Criminal Court Dublin, 1936, National Archives, Dublin. Return to text.
  6. Evil Literature Committee Papers, File 7/2/17, Department of Justice Files, National Archives of Ireland. Return to text.

Cara Delay, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston, holds degrees from Boston College and Brandeis University. Her research analyzes women, gender, and culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, Britain, and the British Empire, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth. She has published in The Journal of British Studies, Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, Feminist Studies, Études Irlandaises, New Hibernia Review, and Éire-Ireland and written blogs for Nursing Clio and Her co-edited volume Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950, was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015, and her monograph on Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. At the College of Charleston, she teaches courses on women’s history and the history of birth and bodies.