Maureen Dowd: Ireland in midst of existential battle over abortion

Friday’s referendum is fractious vote, dividing families and friends on long-hidden issue


Women who want to terminate a pregnancy for almost any reason except imminent death have to leave the country and fly to England or order sketchy pills online and risk a prison sentence.


My parents chose my middle name, Brigid, as a homage to a beloved Irish saint.

My dad had a devotion to St Brigid of Kildare, and growing up in Ireland, he often visited a gurgling well named after her near his home in Clare to say a prayer and bless himself with the water.

According to legend, Brigid had some cool miracles in ancient times. She was a brewer who turned water into beer. She was a virginal abbess who conjured a comely maiden for her disappointed suitor to marry.

But surely my parents didn’t realise that one of her miracles was reputed to be performing Ireland’s first abortion. She helped a young woman who had slipped up and gotten pregnant by making her swollen belly disappear with no pain.

That may have been the last time the subject of abortion did not evoke pain in Ireland.

This country is in the midst of an excruciating existential battle over whether it should keep its adamantine abortion statute, giving an unborn baby equal rights with the mother. Under the Eighth Amendment, abortions are illegal, even in cases of rape or incest. The only exception is when it is believed that the mother will die. Anyone caught buying pills online to induce a miscarriage faces up to 14 years in prison.

The Eighth Amendment was added in 1983 to the Irish Constitution, a document drawn up in 1937 that was so steeped in Catholic principle, it was submitted to the Vatican for review. Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and other opponents of the amendment want to repeal it and craft a new law that gives women and doctors more options, perhaps allowing abortions for up to 12 weeks, and beyond in certain cases.

Old stigmas

The national referendum on Friday is a fractious vote, dividing families and friends, as the two sides thrash out a subject that was long hidden. Even as Ireland has leapt into modernity, growing more European and becoming the Silicon isle as Britain lurches backward with Brexit, women have been left in the past in some ways, absorbing the shame of old stigmas.

In 2015, Ireland became the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. But this is much harder. So far, the repeal Yes side is leading, but the gap is narrowing.


Abortion protests down the years VIEW NOW

Posters with graphic depictions of foetuses compete with “Stop Shaming Women!” posters on lampposts in cities and on country roads. At an anti-abortion rally in Dublin’s Merrion Square last Saturday, a small girl handed out fliers that read “Stop the Slaughter of Babies for Body Parts.”

It is a measure of the draconian views of the No side that they refer to pregnancies where there are fatal foetal abnormalities as “hard cases” and most other abortions as “social abortions”.

Maria Steen, a barrister who stopped practising and is home schooling her four children, works at the conservative Iona Institute and is a prominent voice on the No side. At a fiery dinner I attended with key players from both sides, Steen said her position was simple: “Don’t kill unborn children.” To which Una Mullally, an Irish Times columnist who edited a book of essays and poems called Repeal, riposted: “The mind boggles at how you seek to uphold a system where women are not allowed to make choices for themselves.”

Condoms and spermicides were allowed to be sold without a prescription only starting in 1985, the year after Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old girl, died, along with her baby, during childbirth at a religious grotto in Co Longford.

“Ireland is obsessed with punishing women,” said Niall O’Dowd, the founder of

Two of the most harrowing “hard cases” were the 1992 “X case”, when a 14-year-old girl who was raped by the father of a friend and became suicidal was barred from leaving the country to get an abortion, and the 2012 case of Savita Halappanavar, first reported by Kitty Holland in The Irish Times.

Savita, a 31-year-old Indian immigrant and dentist who was married to an Indian engineer, went to a Galway hospital in distress the day after her baby shower. She was told that her 17-week-old foetus could not be saved.

Septic shock

Over several days, she begged the medical staff to remove the baby to save her life as she developed every symptom of septic shock. But, because the staff members could still detect a heartbeat, they would not do it because, as one midwife told her, “This is a Catholic country.” Savita died four days after her baby girl, whom she named Prasa, was stillborn.

The turbulent debate about the Government’s control over women’s bodies may be affected by yet another unspooling scandal about women’s health. The Irish Department of Health outsourced cervical cancer smear tests to a lab in Texas, and at least 209 women were at first mistakenly cleared between 2010 and 2014; at least 18 have since died. And the number could balloon.

The Government is in trouble for scrambling in secret, once it learned of the shoddy lab testing, to come up with a strategy to save itself. Newspapers and TV are full of anguished interviews with husbands of women who died, never realising they should have been treating their cancer, and with women who have had to tell their kids they will soon die.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, “fallen” or “errant” young women, as they were labelled, were hustled away to the Magdalene Laundries or mother-and-baby homes, which were essentially prisons for unwed mothers run by nuns. As Dan Barry wrote in the Times, many young women were “sent to work, and sometimes die, in guilt-ridden servitude”; hundreds of bodies of young children were discovered in an unmarked grave in Tuam in Co Galway, placed there by nuns.

In the 1930s, my grandmother spirited my father’s older brother out of Ballyvaughan in the middle of the night to a nearby village after he impregnated a neighbour. The young woman was sent into exile in America. She put the baby up for adoption in New York and killed herself a year later. My uncle went on to be a landowner, the pride of the village.

Exporting Irish women

In some ways, things have not changed that much. Women who want to terminate a pregnancy for almost any reason except imminent death still face a Scarlet Letter in the Emerald Isle; they have to leave the country and fly to England if they can afford it (3,265 women went in 2016) or order sketchy pills online and risk a prison sentence.

“The Eighth Amendment has never actually stopped abortion,” said Dr Ross Kelly, a Dublin physician on the Yes side. “We’ve just been exporting Irish women abroad to deal with the reality that women access termination. Women are taking the abortion pill at home on their own, unsupervised, and that is unsafe. Hard cases, like the fatal foetal anomaly cases, are meant to mean rare cases. But we still have two women a week travelling to the UK to access termination for these types of cases.

“All the cases are hard cases. Women who have become pregnant, including victims of rape, we force them to leave the country or risk a prison sentence – that would likely be longer than what the rapist would receive – if they get caught taking the abortion pills.

“We hear stories of women who sell their cars or take money from loan sharks to get the money to travel. It also means that those women tend to have later abortions because you have to arrange all this travel and time off from work and childcare, and that’s not a good thing, either. We’re talking about an awful lot of women who are going through deep, psychological trauma because their country is turning their back on them.” 

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