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Abortion—The Real Irish Lessons

50 Years of Struggle in Ireland for Contraception and Abortion

Cover of 50 Years of Struggle in Ireland for Contraception and Abortion.

Tomás Mac Sheoin is currently working on the history of Irish agrarian agitation.
Therese Caherty, Pauline Conroy, and Derek Spiers (eds.), Road to Repeal: 50 years of Struggle in Ireland for Contraception and Abortion (1970–2020) (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2022), 164 pages, €25, paperback.

In August 2022, Fintan O’Toole, a journalist with the Irish Times, published an article in the New York Review of Books giving his interpretation of the lessons to be learned from the Irish experience with abortion. O’Toole first outlined the history: in 1981, right-wing groups, buttressed by American support—including financial support—formed the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, which persuaded the Irish government to propose a referendum to include a ban on abortion in the Irish Constitution. The ban was passed in 1983, becoming the constitution’s eighth amendment.

O’Toole outlines three problems with legal bans on abortion. First, they simply do not stop abortions: in 1985, 3,888 women traveled from Ireland to England to terminate their pregnancies; in 2001, that number was 6,673. In later years, the numbers declined as access to medical abortion (or abortion pills) became available in Ireland. Second, to be effective, bans must be absolute, but, even in Ireland, the clause added to the constitution had to acknowledge a pregnant person’s right to life, leaving a legal opening. Attempts to enforce the clause led to controversies such as the Attorney General vs. X case, in which a pregnant 14-year-old rape victim and her family were forced, as a result of legal action by the government, to return to Ireland from England, where they had been seeking abortion services. An appeal to the Supreme Court later found the threat of suicide by the girl was grounds for an abortion, once again undermining the constitutional ban. Finally, there is the problem that these bans actually lead to deaths such as that of Savita Halappanavar, who died from sepsis when she was refused a termination while miscarrying in October 2012. On these grounds, O’Toole concludes that the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution was a pyrrhic victory for the so-called pro-life movement.

While all of these points are true, the most important lesson from the Irish experience of abortion politics is missing from O’Toole’s account. The referendum to repeal the constitutional amendment did not magically appear—like the original referendum on the constitutional prohibition of abortion, it was the outcome of political organization, pressure, lobbying, debate, and propaganda, as well as the result of a social movement for reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. This is the subject of the book under review, which chronicles and celebrates this long history of movement activism against the attempts of religious and other right-wing forces to deny Irish women control over their bodies. Road to Repeal not only chronicles that movement, from its earliest days through its various defeats until its eventual victory in 2018, but also illustrates it.

Particularly impressive are the two-page spreads of photographs that seem to catch the forward movement of the pro-choice movement: forty-nine women in a Dublin train station returning from Belfast after importing banned contraceptives in 1971 (22–23); the Contraception Action Programme caravan at Ballymun’s high rise public housing in 1978 and the first Women Against Violence Against Women march in Dublin in 1978 (32–33); the first women’s right to choose protest in 1979 (36–37); the front line of an anti-prohibition amendment protest in 1982 (50–51); supporters outside the tribunal of inquiry into the Joanna Hayes case (where Irish police framed a young Kerry woman for the death of a baby found on an isolated beach) in January 1985, the latter accompanied by a photograph of grim-faced countryfolk from Hayes’s home area (58–59); the march for the right to information on abortion in February 1987 (60–61); the February 1992 rally protesting the X case (78–79); the protest following the death of Halappanavar (11–21); the Strike 4 Repeal protest in January 2018 (136–37); the fourth annual March for Choice in September 2016 (138–39); and, finally, the crowds at Dublin Castle for the announcement of the victory in the repeal campaign in May 2018 (152–53).

The book’s range is not confined to reproductive rights as, in passing, it touches on other feminist and human rights issues, such as violence against women, censorship, the right to information, free legal aid, abortion as a workplace issue, and clerical child abuse. In ways, it represents a history of the Irish women’s movement over those fifty years, including the history of women’s organizations (both fleeting and long-term) and formation of alternative institutions, such as the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Well Women clinics, and feminist magazines and presses. While the book has no bibliography, it includes photographs of the front pages and covers of the most significant feminist publications in this fifty-year period, from those of small feminist groups to mainstream publishers, from the work of activists to journalists. It also reproduces much movement ephemera, including leaflets, statements, posters, badges, cartoons, and so on. The commentary maintains a fine balance, covering both international and national legal cases and their attendant controversies, but always foregrounds the movement—the small groups, alliances, information providers, networks, trade unions, lawyers, health workers, and supporters in England and elsewhere. The latter included Irish emigrants, who picketed Irish embassies in Australia, England, and the United States, supported Irish patients traveling for abortion, and returned home in their hundreds to vote in favor of repeal.

O’Toole suggests that those pressing for the 1983 amendment were pushing at an open door, buttressing his case by noting the referendum passed two-to-one. However, a third of the voters on the referendum opposing it implies both a reasonably strong opposition bloc and that the alleged hegemony of the Catholic Church was already cracking. This also throws doubt on O’Toole’s characterization of Ireland as a complacently Catholic island. The country was already changing as a result of economic liberalization, increasing foreign direct investment and decreasing the gender gap in the workplace, while the ideology of the traditional Catholic family was being undermined by individualism and the culture of consumption that accompanied liberalization.

The story is clear. Instead of being satisfied with the status quo, under which abortion was illegal, the “pro-life” movement (itself a superb example of false branding) decided to copperfasten the prohibition on abortion through its inclusion in the Irish Constitution. Indeed, it is possible that this foreign intervention into the politics of Irish reproductive rights had a totally different impact than intended. Instead of closing the issue for good and all, this intervention actually intensified contestation on the issue, as its implications became apparent in a series of scandals and resulting court cases that fueled the movement for abortion rights, each public scandal providing another occasion for the movement to mobilize. Thus, the prohibition helped the growth of the movement it opposed through the revelation of public scandals—the X case, the Y case, the death of Halappanavar, and others. As each public scandal resulting from the interaction between reality and the pro-life constitutional clause arose, the movement began a long march through the various legal and political channels available. National referenda in 1992 saw majorities vote for access to information about abortion, for a constitutional right to travel for the procedure, and to allow suicide risk as grounds for terminating a pregnancy. Such actions culminated in an alliance that eventually saw the repeal of the prohibition on abortion.

There are two other comments worth making on O’Toole’s lessons that can be drawn from Road to Repeal. The first relates to O’Toole’s partitionist stance: there is not a word about the six counties that are still under British rule and where Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists combined to prevent the expansion of the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalized abortion, from Britain, and where full abortion facilities are still not available. While O’Toole happily castigates the Catholic Church in the other twenty-six Irish counties, he makes no mention of the Protestant fundamentalism in the remaining six. This fundamentalism, moreover, is intimately connected with that found in North America; for example, that most notorious hellfire preacher and politician, Ian Paisley, received an honorary doctorate from the evangelical Bob Jones University in 1966. Confronting this legacy, no doubt, would complicate O’Toole’s simple story of the Catholic Church’s responsibility.

Meanwhile, south of the border, the struggle for reproductive and bodily autonomy is not over. The Catholic Church has not gone away. In particular, its corporate and institutional structures still dominate the Irish educational, health care, and social landscapes. In particular, the new planned national maternity hospital, where abortion facilities are supposed to be provided, is to be built on land leased from the Religious Sisters of Charity, a Catholic nursing order.

To finish, I wish to praise those who produced Road to Repeal. Each of its authors has a long history of involvement in Irish social movements. Therese Caherty is a journalist, trade unionist, and co-founder of the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. Pauline Conroy has consistently written and published critical commentary and analysis of the struggle for control of women’s bodies and reproductive rights since the 1980s and the strategies of the anti-abortion movement, as well as being a member of the Irish women’s movement. And, finally, since the visual imagery is such an important part of this book, particular praise is due to the photographer Derek Spiers, the appearance of whose name on the cover guarantees the photographic coverage will be comprehensive. In the thirty years that I lived in Dublin, I would be hard pressed to recall a single march, meeting, picket, or protest in which I participated at which Spiers was not present, and from which he provided photographs to both commercial and movement media. If the Road to Repeal illustrates the importance of social movements, it also bears witness to the importance and effectiveness of the actions of individuals.

2023, Volume 74, Issue 09 (February)
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