The Holy War On Irish Wombs

By Laurie Penny

It’s a freezing Saturday afternoon in Dublin and, on the corner of O’Connell Street, a nervous young man called Dennis wants me to sign a petition with a picture of a dead baby on it. Dennis is 21 years old and doesn’t like abortion one bit. Especially not now that there’s a chance, for the first time in a generation, of liberalising the law just a little to allow women at risk of actual death to terminate their pregnancies. 

“I'm trying to keep abortion away from Ireland,” repeats Dennis, churning out the slogan being yelled by stern older men behind him. “If [a woman] doesn't want a child, there's obvious steps she can take to not have a child.” Like what? “Well, for example, abstinence,” he says, looking down at me uncomfortably. “Purity before marriage.” What about sexual equality? Dennis is blushing, despite the cold. “Well, I'm here against abortion. I wouldn't have anything to say to that.”

It's illegal for a woman to have an abortion under almost any circumstances in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if she might die in the delivery room. Every year, thousands of women with crisis pregnancies scrape together the money to travel overseas to have abortions – and that’s if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky – immigrants, shift-workers or too poor to afford a red-eye Ryanair flight to London – the only options are to take black-market abortion pills or be forced to give birth. Right now, members of the Irish parliament are trying to push through legislation to allow women to have abortions if they’re at risk of suicide, but the Catholic hard-right are fighting back.

Since 1967, when Britain made abortion legal, over 150,000 Irish women have gone to England to end their pregnancies. They go in secret and, since that figure only covers those who list Irish addresses, the true number is probably much higher. It’s a situation that has been tacitly accepted in Irish society for years: abortion is sinful, but we’ll put up with it as long as it happens far away and the women involved are shamed into silence. “It’s an Irish solution to an Irish problem,” says Sinead Ahern, an activist with Choice Ireland. Now all that might be about to change.


A protest against Ireland's abortion laws in Dublin after the death of Savita Halappanavar.

Last November, 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia in a Galway hospital after being refused an emergency abortion. The inquest into her death is ongoing, but Savita’s husband and family are adamant that she would be alive had the doctors not insisted that, because there was still a foetal heartbeat, a life-saving termination couldn't be performed. If the results of the inquest show that Savita died as a direct result of Galway doctors’ refusal to abort, she will not have been the first woman to die in great pain because of the Irish Catholic Church’s war on reproductive rights.

In 2010, Michelle Harte – a cancer patient who had to travel to England to have the abortion that would have prolonged her life – spoke before she died of how Cork doctors turned her away. It’s happened before, and without legislation it’ll happen again. But it's the story of Savita Halapannavar that has drawn global attention and outrage to the situation.

Suddenly the grisly reality of women being forced to go through months of pregnancy and painful labour, begging to have dead babies removed from their bodies and sometimes dying in pain has a name and a face. Vigils have been held for Savita across Ireland. Pro-choice marches are being held in a country where calling yourself "pro-choice" is still a risk to your job and your safety. Answers are being demanded from the government, and now the government is being forced to listen.

Something is changing in Ireland. For women across the country, shame and intimidation are no longer quite enough to stop them from speaking out about abortion, about contraception and about sexual equality. A majority of the population now agrees, according to the latest polls, that the laws need to be relaxed. In response, Ireland’s pro-life movement, backed by big money from the United States, has poured its energies into a massive propaganda campaign, informing women that if they have abortions they will go mad, get breast cancer, kill themselves or, with any luck, all three.

On O’Connell Street the rain is blowing in horizontally. Two little girls in matching red jackets who can’t be more than six years old are handing out pictures of oozing, bloody foetal corpses. Muffled up in scarves and mittens, they look like they’ve stepped off the front of a Victorian biscuit box and smile as they offer you leaflets telling you that your sister, your mother, your best friend is a sinner. “We call these street information sessions,” says 29-year-old Rebecca, a spokeswoman for Youth Defence, one of Ireland’s largest pro-life organisations, which has recently attracted controversy because of its acceptance of large financial donations from the Christian right in the United States.

Rebecca tells me that opposition to abortion in all circumstances is “a value that's held deeply by Irish people”. She is quite correct that in both the Republic and the North, and on both sides of the sectarian divide, anti-choice proselytising is one issue where religious men in positions of power find common cause. “In the North, where in previous years there would have been conflict between Catholics and Protestants, this is the one thing they both agree on,” says Rebecca. Her broad lipglossed smile seems to indicate that this is a good thing.

Some of the more extreme pro-life campaign groups make exceptions for pregnancies that are the result of rape, reasoning in their generous, Christian way that women who didn't want to have sex in the first place should not be punished by being forced to carry a child to term. Even that, however, is too liberal for Ireland’s Youth Defence. “Rape is a horrific crime”, says Rebecca, “but even though that child is conceived in a non-ideal situation, two wrongs don't make a right.”

The smile seems to be sprayed on to her face, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. Although they claim to represent a broad, grassroots movement against abortion, most of the pro-life groups operating out of Ireland list the same address as their base of operations. That address is 6A, Capel Street, Dublin – a building called Life House. Its facade is the colour of arterial blood.

In a hotel lobby in downtown Dublin, six pro-choice activists are distracted by a baby. Little Ailbhe Redmond is four weeks old and freshly-baked, blinking and wriggling as she is passed from hand to hand by a bunch of excited young women who spend their free time being called baby killers by the Catholic right. Ailbhe’s mum, Sinead Redmond of Choice Ireland, was new to activism when she started an online campaign against pro-life propaganda this August.

Since then, over the course of a lot of rainy marches and a reeking heap of harassment, the women of Choice Ireland have become, amongst other things, good mates, and these women need all the friends they can get. Pro-choice activists in Ireland face targeted retribution – harassment of a kind that feminist activists in many other countries would struggle to comprehend.

Many have been individually targeted by right-wing groups. Over four days in Dublin, I spoke to women who had been followed home, had phone-calls tipping off their employers about their politics and made to fear for their jobs, and had graphic hate-mail and death threats delivered to their homes and the homes of their families. The favourite flavour of hyper-religious hate-mail is the delivery of a set of rosary beads in an unmarked package, which seems an odd message to send: "Jesus knows where you live."

Sinead Redmond got a rosary whose individual beads were carved to look like foetuses in pain. She unhooks herself to breastfeed Ailbhe as she tells me, “Being pregnant made me so much more pro-choice. It brought it home to me how barbaric it is to force a woman to go through pregnancy, never mind labour.


Photo by Andrew Flood.

“Pregnancy is incredibly emotionally and physically debilitating. I would never, ever dream of forcing that on another woman and I don't know how anyone who's been through it can. Furthermore, having given birth to a baby girl, I don't understand how anyone who's the parent of daughters can not be pro choice. I just don't get it.”

Fear of prosecution and of social backlash has kept generations of Irish women from speaking out against abortion and contraception. The paranoia is so pervasive that, of the many women and girls I spoke to who had had abortions, only two were willing to go on the record. “A lot of people talk about having abortions, but they don't want to put their name or their face to it,” says 23-year-old Suzanne Lee, a shy mathematics student at the University College Dublin. Last summer, Suzanne ended an accidental pregnancy at six weeks by taking the abortion pill, which she ordered off the internet.

As one of the few people willing to speak out about her abortion experience, Suzanne has been interviewed on television before and received death-threats from pro-life individuals. “I knew if I was ever going to have a child I needed to be in a position where it could have everything,” she says, explaining her decision.

Ordering the abortion pill online is risky, but international organisations like Women on Web attempt to make the process simpler for those who can’t afford to travel to England. “What I've done is completely illegal,” says Suzanne, who had to cross the border and travel to Belfast to pick up the pills. “It's weird knowing that I could be facing years in prison.”


A pro-choice group demonstrating outside the courts during the "Miss D" case.

"In some ways, I'm not the best face for this cause because mine was what they'd call a 'social abortion' – my life wasn't at risk," she says. "But the majority of women having abortions are probably having them for social reasons.” "Social reasons" would include: not wanting to go through pregnancy against your will, being too young or too poor to have a child or simply not being ready, which are – when you get down to it – the reasons most people decide that abortion is the best option for them.

Even if the new laws do pass, they won't permit women any real choice about abortion unless they’re on death’s door, at which point a doctor will choose for them. Thousands of women will continue to travel abroad every year and risk their health by taking black market abortion pills, unless there are major changes to the constitution, which was amended in the 1980s to enshrine the “rights of the unborn” as equal to the rights of women. 

The shambolic state of the Irish economy makes the situation more urgent for women in need. Unemployment in Ireland is 14.6 percent, and standards of living and income are falling all over the country. “A lot of it is to do with the recession,” says Bebhinn Farrell, an activist with Choice Ireland. “Before, there wasn't as much talk about social issues, it was all about money and spending. If you needed to have an abortion, you went to England.” Now, however, with the economy wheezing and stuttering, the class divide between those who can afford to travel to England and have an abortion and the many who can’t has been brought home.

Many of those who can’t receive help from the Abortion Support Network (ASN), a group that funds and supports women flying from Ireland to terminate unwanted pregnancies. ASN sends money to hundreds of Irish who can’t afford the ticket to an English clinic, but because of the time it takes to organise travel and drum up the cash for the procedure, many don’t arrive at English clinics until they're at a late stage of pregnancy.


A pro-life counter demonstration during the "Miss D" case.

That delay makes every difference. It means that the procedure is often costlier and more complicated than it needs to be, that British abortion law directly affects Irish women and that current efforts by British pro-life groups to reduce the time limit on legal abortion will have devastating implications for women travelling from Ireland.

Abortion is, effectively, the one issue where the laws of the English still hold sway over Irish citizens. “It’s really ironic,” comments Anthea McTiernan, a journalist at the Irish Times, “that the loyalists are fighting to keep the Union Flag over Belfast city hall, but we're willing to have the flag of the Catholic church flying over the wombs of Irish women 365 days a year.”

“It's a democratic issue about women's bodily integrity,” says Ivana Bacik, a politician in the Upper House of the Oirechtas and a leading spokesperson for abortion rights in Ireland. It is pure chance, Bacik tells me, that the case of Savita Halappanavar hit international headlines just as the new laws allowing abortion in the case of a risk to the pregnant woman’s life started passing through parliament. These laws centre on the story of an anonymous woman 20 years ago, a woman known only as “Miss X”, whose human rights were found to have been violated by the Irish Supreme Court.


Demonstrations during the "Miss X" case. Photo by Andrew Flood.

Miss X, a 14-year-old rape victim, was denied permission to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy. The police found out about her travel plans after her parents asked them if DNA from the aborted foetus could be used to convict the rapist. Miss X was left suicidal as a result of being forced to continue to pregnancy and the Supreme Court ruled that, in her case and others, risk of suicide should be considered a case for legal abortion. By the time the ruling came through, Miss X had had a miscarriage.

That was in 1992. Wherever she is now, Miss X is 35 years old. It has taken 20 years for Irish politicians to even begin to implement the legal changes. This, according to Bacik, is “because the anti-choice lobby is so powerful that no politician has wanted to touch it. Until the last election in February 2011, there were only a handful of us willing to identify as pro-choice, but the mood has changed politically. We will bring in legislation before the summer,” she insists.

Ivana Bacik has been fighting the lonely battle for women’s sexual health since long before she entered parliament. As a student at Trinity Dublin, she was taken to court for providing information on abortion and contraception and almost went to prison. “The introduction of this legislation will undoubtedly change the culture in Ireland,” she says. Bacik, like many others, hopes that the extremely limited legal changes coming in this year will pave the way for real choice for women in the future. “Things are changing, and for many young women [the suicide exception] won’t be enough.”

Right now, though, thousands of women and girls continue to catch budget flights to London every year, alone and scared to have abortions they aren’t allowed to speak about without shame. Jan O’Sullivan was caught travelling to England to have an abortion 20 years ago at the age of 18. “I'd seen how unmarried mothers get treated,” says Jan, who now has two kids of her own. “There’s huge stigma even now – you're damned if you have the baby and damned if you don't.”

Contraceptives were only made legally available over the counter in Ireland in 1993 and the infamous Magdalene laundries were still open for any young woman who slipped up. “We'd been using condoms, but one broke and I ended up pregnant,” says Jan. “Sheer panic. I'd never left the country before, never been on a plane. Between finding out, trying to get an appointment and sorting out traveling and money, I was 11 or 12 weeks pregnant when we arrived in London. My hands shook nearly the entire time. We were terrified we'd meet people – we had already done so much lying about leaving the country for three days for a 'romantic break.'"

“I woke up after the procedure to find I was lying flat on my front, and I knew before I was even awake that I wasn't pregnant any more. It took a year to pay back the credit union loan.” Jan still believes it was the right decision, but the trauma of the journey has stayed with her over two decades. It’s a journey that thousands of desperate Irish women continue to make every year. “I haven't been back to London. I've travelled plenty of other places, but not there, never there,” she says.

“Abortion isn't rare in this country, it's just not talked about.”

To find out more, or if you’d like to donate to the Abortion Support Network, visit abortionsupport.org.uk.

Follow Laurie on Twitter: @PennyRed

More stuff about abortion:

My Abortion Story

Did Savita Halappanavar Really Have to Die, Ireland?

Women on Waves, Bringing Abortion to a Pro-Life Nation Near You

Totally Abortion!

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