Citizens of the Republic of Ireland will vote on a referendum on May 25, 2018 to potentially overturn the state’s notoriously harsh anti-abortion laws.1 This moment is being characterized as a defining one, a watershed moment for a state that Amnesty International and the United Nations have chastised for its misogynistic, anti-feminist policies.
Indeed, for decades, scandal after scandal related to gender and sexuality have plagued Ireland. The horrifying revelations of clerical sexual abuse and women’s incarceration in Magdalen Laundries in the 1990s and early 2000s were followed by the death of Savita Halappanavar — denied a medically necessary abortion in 2012 — the symphysiotomy controversy, and, most recently, the discovery of the remains of over 800 discarded infant and child skeletons at the Tuam home for unwed mothers.
As I write this, a new controversy is flooding the news: since 2008, hundreds of Irish women received falsely negative pap smear test results; at least 200 now have cervical cancer that may have benefitted from treatment had the test results been correct. It is time, activists argue, for not only change but a definitive public message, sent en masse by the people of Ireland to the world, that their country is ready to move beyond the horrors of its misogynistic past and take its place in a modern, secular Europe — one where women are not vessels or symbols but full citizens.
In 2015, via popular vote, Ireland overwhelmingly said yes to legalizing same-sex marriage. After this referendum, national television and radio station RTÉ called the vote “a social revolution, an expression of decency and a country coming of age.” Many, at the time, foreshadowed that an abortion referendum would come next. And here it is, merely three years later.
Abortion, however, is a more contentious issue in Ireland, fraught with complex and competing notions of motherhood, women’s roles, and Irishness itself.
My first exposure to the complex realities of abortion in Ireland came in 1992, when I was an undergraduate studying abroad in Cork. In February of that year, a fourteen-year-old Irish girl, later known as “X,” was raped by a friend’s father and became pregnant. X’s parents wanted to take her to terminate the pregnancy in England, where abortion was legal. Before leaving, however, they contacted Irish authorities to ask if tissue from the aborted fetus could be brought back to Ireland and used in court to identify the rapist.
What happened next would create shockwaves across Europe. Ireland’s Attorney General, claiming that this abortion would be a violation of Irish law (abortion was and remains illegal in Ireland in almost all cases), placed an injunction upon X, forbidding her to leave Ireland for a period of ten months (presumably until the baby could be born safely). When news of this case broke, scandal erupted in Ireland and all over Europe, and the abortion debate exploded once again at the center of Irish life.
As an American pro-choice feminist in Ireland, I immediately looked for activist routes — marches, rallies, etc., hoping to get involved and to make a difference in a country I was coming to love, but whose policies I found bewildering. Opportunities for activism, however, were few and far between. When I joined a pro-choice march consisting of maybe a few dozen people, the stares and scorn of open-mouthed bystanders sent me a clear message: the issue was different in Ireland. Coming out as a feminist was controversial, activism was radical, and debates about abortion went beyond “pro-choice” versus “pro-life.”
I remember at the time some of my Irish roommates telling me that I had no right to intervene in what was, to them, a specifically and uniquely Irish issue. Abortion to them was different — it did not signify global feminism or individual rights or women’s choices but something more deeply embedded in their national culture. I have spent much of my career as a historian interrogating these connections, arguing that what is at stake in the abortion debate in Ireland is Irishness itself. Both sides in the debate consider their position to be the best one for women, mothers, and the nation.
For anti-abortion activists, women’s primary roles as mothers help define a traditional, moral, and Catholic nation that steadfastly refuses to secularize like the rest of Europe, and the former colonizer, Britain. Abortion liberalization, in this worldview, threatens “foreign” influence and a loss of cultural identity.
For those who favor overturning restrictive abortion laws, the issue signifies a rejection of the patriarchal past and the heavy hand of an oppressively Catholic Church, a detour from an outdated and harmful conflation of womanhood and motherhood, and a clear message that Ireland is ready to become truly European.
In the age of the internet and social media, the debates between the “yes” and “no” sides have been intense and ubiquitous; abortion dominates the news. Right now, in early May, polls suggest that the “yes” side will prevail on the 25th. Then again, polls have been wrong before, and, according to the Irish Times, thousands may be undecided still.
If the referendum fails, little will change. Irish women will continue to terminate pregnancies, whether they travel to England, as they currently do at the rate of 6-7,000 per year, or, as is more and more common, order abortion pills online.
But even if abortion does become legal in Ireland, the work for pro-choice activists will not end: how do you implement a system of medical abortion where there has never been one? How do you learn from the lessons of the US and ensure that access to abortion is not restricted based on region, marital status, ethnicity, and economic background? Beyond issues of identity and Irishness, these realities will determine how the law affects those ordinary Irish women who desire and need abortion. In the reproductive justice world, all eyes will be on Ireland on May 25. Whatever the referendum results, however, let’s hope that this attention and activism continues well beyond the summer.
- The referendum asks citizens to vote “yes” or “no” on overturning article 40.3.3 (the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution) from 1983, which reads: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” Return to text.