Ireland has the EU’s strictest abortion laws. Now, resistance is growing.
(A translation of this piece for the German daily paper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. The trip to Ireland was made possible through a grant by the Karl Gerold Foundation.)
Tara Flynn makes a living off being funny. She writes columns and books, she acts in comedy series, she’s being invited to radio shows. But at her most important public appearance in recent months, on a sunny autumn afternoon in a park in Dublin, her voice broke, and nobody laughed. It was the start of the March for Choice, a pro-choice demonstration. “I had an abortion”, Tara Flynn said. “I am not a murderer. I am not a criminal.” With her appearance, she put herself at the forefront of a fight that has long been settled in most of Europe, yet is only just starting in Ireland.
In 2015, Ireland was the first country in the world to introduce marriage same-sex marriage through a referendum. Suddenly it looked like a model country for liberalism. But the very same country has, together with Malta, the EU’s strictest abortion laws. A woman who has an abortion in Ireland can be punished with up to 14 years in prison – even if the child was conceived through rape or if it is so severely disabled it would die soon after birth. The only exception is a serious danger to the life of the mother.
In 1971, the German magazine Stern published a famous cover story with the headline “We’ve had an abortion”. 45 years later, a similar campaign is taking place in Ireland. Tara Flynn started it, Róisín Ingle, a journalist for the Irish Times, followed a week later. Then the website “X-ile Project” was launched, featuring photos of women who’ve had abortions. Together with liberal politicians and doctors, they are fighting for the repeal of the eight amendment of the Irish constitution which, with “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”, protects “the right to life of the unborn”.
The ban on abortion doesn’t keep Irish women from having abortions. It forces them to go abroad to have them. In 2014, at least 3,735 women living in Ireland had abortions in England and Wales alone. 76,000 did so since the turn of the century.
Two hours ahead of her next improv comedy gig, Tara Flynn sits in a bar in Dublin, clenching her hands. She still finds it difficult to talk about her trip to the Netherlands ten years ago. Flynn was 37 then. In the clinic in Utrecht, she was the only patient who was on her own. “It was incredibly isolating and terrifying”, she says. “I hadn’t told my doctor. You don’t know what your own GP’s attitude is.”
At least, Flynn could afford a plane ticket to go abroad. For women who lack money for the ticket, ordering abortion pills online is the only option. But customs often seize these pills – they are illegal in Ireland, after all. Women who experience complications after taking abortion pills “may be afraid to go to their GP because of the criminalisation”, says Evelyn Geraghty, Counselling Director of the Irish Family Planning Association. Nobody knows how many Irish women have used abortion pills. There’s only one clue: the number of abortion pills seized by customs. In 2014, they confiscated 1,017 packets.
The consultation room where Evelyn Geraghty works is located in a basement off O’Connell street, at the edge of the Dublin inner city. Vertical blinds in front of the windows, safety doors, a CCTV camera. Ten years ago, radical pro life activists attacked and occupied the clinic that offers counselling about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases but also about unwanted pregnancies. Geraghty says there are still small protests in front of the clinic sometimes.
Many people in Ireland say the influence of the Catholic church has been fading in recent years, not least because of a number of child abuse scandals. According to Geraghty, there are historical reasons for the abortions laws being what they are. “When feminists in Germany, Italy or France were fighting for abortion in the Seventies, we were fighting for contraception”, she says. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980; until 1985, the Irish needed a prescription to buy condoms. Divorce has only been legal since 1997.
According to the European Social Survey, the number of Catholics in Ireland has slightly declined in recent years, down to 70 percent. But even today, 39 percent of the Irish go to church at least once a week. That’s more than in any other EU country except Poland. And to this day, most churches in Ireland are run by the Catholic church. “People underestimate the structural influence of the church in the schools and hospitals”, says Ivana Bacik, a pro choice activist and a Labour MP in the Seanad, the Irish Upper House. She also claims that pro life organisations in Ireland are getting massive support from the USA. “Ireland has now become a kind of last bastion for the anti choice forces”, Bacik says.
Ireland as an arena for the international fight about abortion: That might be the only point of consensus between Ivana Bacik and Thomas Finegan. Finegan, 31, works for Iona Institute, a conservative advocacy group. When he speaks about abortion, he speaks about “the killing of a child”. Finegan doesn’t think the ban on abortion is misogynist. On the contrary, he says it even protects women: “The primary cause of abortion is men” who, according to Finegan, pressure women into it. Finegan claims that men in England and in the USA even slip their partners abortion pills.
Support for anti-abortionists has been shrinking in Ireland in recent years due to a number of dramatic cases. The “X Case” in 1992, for example: A 14-year-old girl became pregnant from statutory rape, the state prevented her from leaving the country for an abortion even though she was suicidal. Eventually, 21 years later, the High Court decided that women have a right to an abortion if they are at risk of suicide. The Savita Halappanavar case in 2012: A dentist died of a septic miscarriage; doctors had refused to abort the dying fetus as long as its heart was beating. The “Y case” in 2014: Bureaucracy prevented an asylum seeker who was pregnant from rape and suicidal from leaving the country; the woman has since sued the Irish State. The “PP case”, also in 2014: A braindead pregnant woman was being kept on life support against her family’s will. Only after some weeks a court ruled that the machines could be turned off because the fetus wasn’t going to survive anyway.
By now, a majority of the Irish is in favour of more liberal abortion laws. Four out of five would make abortion legal in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities. But only 38 percent approve complete legalisation.
So liberals probably won’t be able to repeat the success of their same-sex marriage campaign on this topic. “It’s a much harder campaign to fight”, says senator Ivana Bacik, “there are no joyful stories, it’s not about love”. And actress Tara Flynn predicts the opponents’ campaign will be “a filthy, bloody mess”.