The struggle for abortion rights in Ireland
December 5, 2012
Abortion and the struggle for a woman’s right to choose is taking center stage on both sides of the Irish border, in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.
The death of a young woman in the Republic of Ireland because she was denied an abortion brought thousands onto the streets in outrage—while in Northern Ireland, the opening of an abortion clinic in Belfast has challenged the conservative establishment consensus.
The debate is opening up a new front of struggle amid the ongoing repercussions of the collapse of the Irish economic boom, known internationally as the Celtic Tiger, as well as economic stagnation in Northern Ireland.
The economic meltdown has had a staggering impact on Irish politics and society. In the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fail, the dominant party over the previous 70 years, was severely punished in the 2011 national elections. Austerity continues to widen inequality, deepen class polarization and fuel latent resistance. But resistance isn’t just developing for economic justice, but for social justice as well.
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Sativa Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian immigrant and dentist, died on October 28 after doctors at Galway University Hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy. Savita and her husband Praveen, were told an abortion couldn’t be performed because Ireland is “a Catholic country.”
The India Times correctly characterized what happened with the headline: “Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist.” Thousands have taken to the streets to demonstrate their anger at this completely unnecessary tragedy and to demand new legislation so it never happens again.
Savita, who has been in Ireland with her husband since 2008, was informed by doctors on October 21 that she was miscarrying. She suffered days of agony and her appeals for a termination were turned down. On October 24, the fetal heartbeat could no longer be detected, and the fetus was removed. But Savita had to be taken to intensive care with multi-organ failure. She died on October 28 after contracting a blood infection.
This happened because the Republic of Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Abortion remains illegal under the antiquated 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act. In 1992, Ireland’s High Court was pressured to rule that abortions could take place if there was a threat to the life of the mother and that women would have the right to travel abroad for the procedure.
The 1992 ruling came in response to a case in which a 14-year-old victim of rape was denied the right to have an abortion or travel elsewhere. Huge demonstrations and a massive public outcry forced the government to backtrack.
Some 3,000 women now travel from the Republic of Ireland to the United Kingdom or elsewhere for abortions every year. However, the cost of travel and arranging an abortion makes it much more difficult for working-class and poor women. While the Celtic boom made headlines in the financial press, provisions for maternity, parental leave and child benefits improved only marginally and lagged well behind the rest of the European Union of which the Republic of Ireland is a member state.
Child care costs in Ireland are among the highest in Europe, and one of the travesties of the Celtic Tiger boom was the government’s complete failure of to fund an expansion of widely needed public services.
The 1990s crystallized tremendous social and economic changes across Ireland, with divorce and homosexuality legalized. The transformation in consciousness in the Irish population accompanied a massive increase in female participation in the workforce. In 1961, 26.4 percent of women were part of the workforce in a total population of 2.8 million; in 2011, the employment rate for women was 56 percent. The gender pay gap is still 12.6 percent.
The majority of the population remains nominally Catholic, but there has been a huge decline in adherence to Catholic doctrine. For example, an Irish Times poll in September 2010 found that only 13 percent of respondents described themselves as “strongly religious,” and among those aged between 18 and 24, just 4 percent said they were “strongly religious.” Some 62 percent of urban residents said they attended religious services “only occasionally” or “never.”
On many defining issues, a majority of Irish Catholics don’t follow Church doctrine. Polls consistently show a majority of Irish people support abortion rights. The exposure of the Catholic Church’s tolerance of and defense of pedophiles in the 1990s also destroyed much of its moral authority. Overwhelming majorities support marriage for priests and the right for women to be priests.