Ireland has always been seen, along with Poland, The Philippines and Central and South America, as the heartland of Catholic belief. Despite Ireland’s official status as a democratic republic, however, the Catholic Church still wields a lot of secular power.
For example, 85% of primary schools are owned and under the patronage of the Catholic Church. The vast majority of children in Ireland are therefore exposed to Catholic ethos, iconography, and rituals before developing the mental tools necessary to critically analyze any of it.
A huge chunk of the Irish health service is owned and run by the Catholic Church, and they continue to leverage their influence to impose their ethos on patients. The most recent scandal was in March when it emerged that ownership of the new badly needed National Maternity Hospital, funded by €300m of taxpayer’s money, would be handed over to the Sisters of Charity.
The first issue was that the Sister of Charity still owes millions they agreed to pay after the 2009 Ryan Report into child abuse at institutions they owned and managed. As part of that deal, some of their property is to be transferred to state ownership. The second issue was that, despite assurances to the contrary, the Sisters of Charity are bound by Canon Law (internal Vatican rules), and the Catholic Church actively promotes the view that any hospital they own will “operate by Catholic rules.” (This is not just a hypothetical statement. A nun in Arizona was “automatically excommunicated” in 2009 for approving a life-saving abortion.) At the risk of stating the obvious, some of the most basic aspects of women’s health are unambiguously banned by the Catholic Church.
The response of the St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group (a shell organisation controlled by the nuns) was a passive-aggressive taking-our-ball-home statement. The response of the Minister for Health was to call for “cool heads,” heavily implying that this was business as usual for the Irish health service and with a sense of mystery as to why anyone would find it upsetting.
The First Cracks
The general consensus seems to be that the first cracks in Irish Catholic power started showing in 1993 when Annie Murphy appeared on the highest-rated talk show in Ireland, and the longest-running talk show in the world to claim that her son’s father was Bishop Eamon Casey. She was harangued throughout by the host, Gay Byrne, and a series of middle-aged, middle-class women in the audience. The following year, the first wave of the tsunami of Catholic child abuse cases appeared in the form of the arrest of Brendan Smyth, a priest who abused over a hundred children in a variety of parishes, and whose crimes were covered up by the Catholic Church. The government collapsed directly as a result, but no bishops resigned.
After all this, in 1995, Ireland held a referendum to legalize divorce. For the purposes of clarification, this does indeed mean that divorce was illegal in Ireland up to 1995. The bill passed, but only by 0.28%. Again, for the purposes of clarification, this does indeed mean that more or less half the voters wanted it written into law that not only do they personally disagree with divorce, but you can’t have one either. Clearly Catholic power was not in so bad a shape.
Twenty years later, in 2015, Ireland was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by a “landslide” popular vote. In broader terms, this was not just a symptom of a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, but a less tolerant attitude for the religious absolutism of the Catholic Church which had been building for some time.
Abortion is illegal in Ireland. There are terms and conditions after that, but effectively, it’s illegal. As numerous studies have demonstrated, abortion rates are higher in countries where it’s illegal. In Ireland’s case, this means that thousands of women travel to England every year to have abortions, and that’s just the women who are prepared to admit Irish addresses.
In 1992, a 14-year-old girl was raped and got pregnant. Her parents asked the Irish police if they could use DNA from the aborted foetus to prosecute the rapist, whom they knew. The Irish government immediately snapped into action and issued a High Court injunction preventing her from leaving the country. She miscarried before she had a chance to get an abortion, which renders the entire legal machinery around her case “moot.” Eventually the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were admitted to the constitution, which stated that pregnant women were allowed to travel outside the country, and that pregnant women were allowed to know that other countries had services unavailable in this country. A proposed Twelfth Amendment which stated that a mother’s suicide did not count as “a real and substantive risk to her life” was mercifully defeated as possibly the most misogynistic piece of legislation in the history of the state.
In 2012, due to confusion among doctors over the exact legal status of abortion in Ireland, a woman called Savita Halappanavar died from complications of a septic miscarriage due to “multiple failures” in her treatment, one of which was the inability of the medical staff to determine whether an abortion would have been legal. At the time, she was told that this life-saving procedure would be impossible because “Ireland is a Catholic country.”
In 2014, a suicidal woman was refused an abortion when she was eight weeks pregnant. She went on hunger strike and was “legally forced” to undergo a Caesarean section at twenty-five weeks. The woman was an immigrant and may not have understood what was going on.
This year, 2017, a pregnant teenage girl was “detained in a psychiatric unit” by a psychiatrist after she requested an abortion which he decided was not in her best interests. The girl was sent to Dublin for what she believed was a termination procedure and did not realize she was being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
The Savita Halappanavar case resulted in renewed efforts to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which gave gestating fetuses the “equal right to life” as its living, breathing mother. This campaign was spear-headed mainly by young women who are still conducting active social media engagements to raise awareness of how the Eighth Amendment is hurting thousands of Irish women every year.
In 2016, the government appointed a Citizen’s Assembly primarily to determine how to deal with the Eighth Amendment. 64% of the representatives at this assembly said they wanted abortion to be legalized in Ireland with no restrictions, a percentage which numerous other surveys confirm. This position is backed by repeated calls from Amnesty International and the United Nations and the Council of Europe to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
The Citizen’s Assembly has determined that the mood of the nation is firmly behind a separation of church and state in general, and repealing the Eight Amendment in particular, and for the first time, atheists form the second-largest group in the country (after Catholics).
No longer can the perceived lack of public appetite for change be used as an excuse for inaction. No longer can Catholic power be used as an excuse for inaction. Our new prime minister has promised a referendum on the Eighth Amendment next year, which is similar to earlier unfulfilled promises made down through the years. This time, Ireland is ready to trust its women and take its place among the nations of the earth.
Barry lives in Ireland and writes about philosophy, humor, politics, language and how they intersect. He writes and edits (inter alia) a philosophy blog called What’s The Point of Philosophy?, an atheism blog called Atheist Cartoons, and a Irish political satire blog called In Other News. You can connect with him on Twitter @solo1y, or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org