The Irish abortion question has always been linked to class, secrecy and moral judgment

Opinion: ‘A contributor to The Bell in 1941 suggested women from well-off backgrounds were hustled off, normally to London, Paris, Biarritz, come back without the baby, and nobody is any the wiser’

‘How to respond to changes in attitudes, however, as in the past, has remained a tortured question.’ Above, posters for the 2002 abortion referendum. Photograph: David Sleator

Understandably, given recent and ongoing controversies over the Irish abortion question, much has been made of the figure of 150,000 women who have travelled to Britain for abortions since the 1983 referendum resulted in the insertion of the eighth amendment into the Irish Constitution. The Irish abortion issue, however, has a much longer history than that covered by the last 30 years.

Even when abortion was illegal in Britain, before 1967, Irish women made the trip, as they did to other European cities. A contributor to Seán Ó Faoláin's The Bell magazine in 1941 suggested some young women from well-off backgrounds were "hustled off, normally to London, Paris, Biarritz, come back without the baby, and nobody is any the wiser".

In a country where there was such a stigma around illegitimacy, this is hardly surprising, nor is the frequency with which less-well-off women opted for infanticide. The Irish abortion question has always been linked to class, secrecy and moral judgment.


Some performing abortions in the early decades of this State’s existence were prosecuted; under section 58 of the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, a person who “unlawfully” procured the miscarriage of a woman was considered to have committed a felony. Judges in some cases reminded the all-male juries they were required to separate legal fact from morality; that the court in which an abortion case was heard was not a court of morals. In his summing up of one case in 1945, however, one judge added, “perhaps one often wishes that it were”. It was a revealing admission, but even though women who had undergone illegal abortions were often the main witnesses for the State and could be subjected to demeaning character attacks by those defending those charged with performing these operations, their stories generally remained hidden from view. It was those who had performed abortions who were more likely to be remembered.


Penal servitude

Following a clampdown in 1943-1944, some of those abortionists were dealt with severely by the courts, receiving long sentences of penal servitude, including Christopher Williams, a prominent chemist, Dr James Ashe, medical examiner to the matrimonial division of the High Court, and Henry Coleman, who ran an extensive abortion practice in Merrion Square. Ireland’s most famous and notorious abortionist was Mamie Cadden, who dumped the body of Helen O’Reilly on Hume Street, Dublin, in April 1956, after a botched abortion. Cadden was no feminist, and had no empathy with the women who had unwanted pregnancies, whom she labelled “whores”.

In a simplistic and lazy way, the words “Nurse Cadden” became synonymous with evil. There were all sorts of rumours about the extent of her supposed monstrosity, without an acknowledgment of what enabled her to stay in business.

That is what it was to her, a business, and Cadden did not make any bones about why she did it – to make money so that she could live with a degree of ostentation unavailable to most midwives.

In the modern era, the charge of murder against Cadden would not have withstood legal challenge. The botched operation – the pumping of a mixture of water and disinfectant into the womb created an air embolism that killed O’Reilly – was accidental.

Helen O’Reilly was a 33-year-old mother-of-six whose husband had deserted her and who was forced to put her children in care in various convents. She had already tried and failed to induce a miscarriage through the use of abortifacient drugs. Her plight must have been replicated all over the country. But O’Reilly was forgotten; it was Cadden who was remembered and she ended her days in Dundrum Mental Hospital as a convicted murderer.

In 1983, the late journalist Mary Holland made a significant intervention in the debate on abortion by writing of her own experience of having an abortion. A decision to go public with this information was rare and it remains rare (Holland received hate mail and was subjected to ferocious criticism). Over 20 years later, in 1995, Holland found herself coming back to the issue and what she regarded as the lack of honest discourse and political bravery apparent in the failure to legislate for the 1992 X case.

She wrote: “It would be an enormous relief if some younger woman or women were to start writing about the issue of abortion from personal experience and leave me to the relatively easy task of analysing the peace process. Please.”

Few chose to do that. While the figure of 150,000 women travelling outside of Ireland for abortions since the 1983 amendment is a reminder of the extent and volume of the personal experiences referred to by Holland, they understandably remain for the most part, with some notable exceptions, intensely private experiences. Discourse about these experiences has not reached the level that we have come to associate with other large numbers of people in our recent history who have experienced exclusion, humiliation and the consequences of a burying of heads in sand.

In 2000, journalist Medb Ruane concluded that in relation to Irish women and abortion, “theological and legal arguments supplant the personal testimony of women”.

While that observation is still relevant, what has become more apparent is the power of individual stories associated with the abortion question to challenge that supplanting, including that of Savita Halappanavar who died in 2012, and most recently, that of the young rape victim at the centre of the current controversy.

What might in the decades prior to the 1990s have remained hidden, or been seen as quite abstract, becomes something entirely different; personal stories lay bare uncomfortable truths and disturbing realities about the treatment of pregnant women who do not want to continue with their pregnancies, and these stories can influence a change in opinion on what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Tortured question

How to respond to changes in attitudes, however, as in the past, has remained a tortured question. In 1992, Justice Niall McCarthy of the Supreme Court, referring to the 1983 constitutional amendment, insisted “the failure by the legislature to enact the appropriate legislation is no longer unfortunate, it is inexcusable. What are pregnant women to do? What are the parents of a pregnant girl under age to do? What are the medical profession to do?” Despite the 2013 Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, these questions still seem relevant and inadequately addressed; nor can it be maintained that class, secrecy and moral judgment do not still dictate much in this area.

The history of the abortion question in Ireland does not suggest these problems will be addressed to the satisfaction of most; what will also continue for many pregnant women is the journey abroad. The 2013 Bill for most women with a crisis pregnancy will appear restrictive, abstract and ultimately irrelevant, while for those not in a position to act independently, things are bleaker still.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD