The Holy War on Irish Wombs
It’s a freezing Saturday afternoon in Dublin and, on the corner of O’Connell Street, a nervous young man called Dennis wants me to sign a petition with a picture of a dead baby on it. Dennis is 21 years old and doesn’t like abortion one bit. Especially not now that there’s a chance, for the first time in a generation, of liberalizing the law just a little to allow women at risk of actual death to terminate their pregnancies.
“I’m trying to keep abortion away from Ireland,” repeats Dennis, churning out the slogan being yelled by stern older men behind him. “If [a woman] doesn’t want a child, there’s obvious steps she can take to not have a child.” Like what? “Well, for example, abstinence,” he says, looking down at me uncomfortably. “Purity before marriage.” What about sexual equality? Dennis is blushing, despite the cold. “Well, I’m here against abortion. I wouldn’t have anything to say to that.”
It’s illegal for a woman to have an abortion under almost any circumstances in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if she might die in the delivery room. Every year, thousands of women with crisis pregnancies scrape together the money to travel overseas to have abortions—and that’s if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky—immigrants, shift-workers… anyone who is too poor to afford a red-eye Ryanair flight to London—the only options are to take black-market abortion pills or be forced to give birth. Right now, members of the Irish parliament are trying to push through legislation that would allow women to have abortions if they’re at risk of suicide, but the Catholic hard-right are fighting back.
Since 1967, when Britain made abortion legal, over 150,000 Irish women have gone to England to end their pregnancies. They go in secret and, since that figure only covers those who list Irish addresses, the true number is probably much higher. It’s a situation that has been tacitly accepted in Irish society for years: abortion is sinful, but we’ll put up with it as long as it happens far away and the women involved are shamed into silence. “It’s an Irish solution to an Irish problem,” says Sinead Ahern, an activist with Choice Ireland. Now all that might be about to change.