Is Ireland Ready for Abortion?

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

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.

#RepealThe8th

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 Purcell

Barry lives in Ireland and writes about philosophy, humor, politics, language and how they intersect.

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Barry Purcell

Barry lives in Ireland and writes about philosophy, humor, politics, language and how they intersect.

5 thoughts on “Is Ireland Ready for Abortion?

  1. Hi Nicola,

    Your main sources, from Finland and Denmark, make no distinction between spontaneous abortions and induced abortions, making them useless for the purposes of my article. In any case, even if they were relevant, the methodology of how deaths were “linked” is moot.

    As for the rest: the work of David Reardon, a known anti-abortion activist, has been criticised by many for near-criminal levels of confirmation bias and the promotion of his religious agenda, something which, I’m sure we can both agree, has no place in science.

    “Although the study data may be accurate by itself, it’s the conclusions leapt to that are the problem. Reardon’s Elliot Institute is notorious for publishing research that suggests abortion is bad for women—but this conclusion does not flow from the data…”
    http://www.prochoiceactionnetwork-canada.org/articles/cmaj-study.shtml

  2. Hi Barry,

    The study you have cited that claims that having an abortion is 14x safer than being pregnant has been heavily criticised for using a flawed methodology that relies only on reported deaths (post abortion and pregnancy) and neglects to accurately link medical records to death certificates. Studies that do this, reveal that 94% of deaths post abortion are missed when only using reported deaths.

    In fact in the US, physicians fail to report a recent pregnancy or abortion on at least 50% of death certificates, rendering reliance on this method inadequate (Horon I. Under-reporting of maternal deaths on death certificates and the magnitude of the problem of maternal mortality, Am J Public Health , 2005, vol. 95 (pg. 478-82).

    The following study Danish study that used adequate medical record linkage, found that mortality rates were three times higher for women who had an abortion or a miscarriage compared to those who had given birth. Not only that, the risk of death increases with the number of abortions. Women who have given birth were also found to have decreased mortality rates than women women who had never been pregnant.

    Priscilla K. Coleman, David C. Reardon, and Byron C. Calhoun, “Reproductive History Patterns and Long-Term Mortality Rates: A Danish, Population-Based Record Linkage Study,” European Journal of Public Health 23, no. 4 (August 1, 2013): 569–74, doi:10.1093/eurpub/cks107.

    Here are a few others that use adequate record linkage to achieve a more accurate accounting:

    “Compared with women who delivered, those who aborted had a significantly higher age-adjusted risk of death from all causes (1.62), from suicide (2.54), and from accidents (1.82), as well as a higher relative risk of death from natural causes (1.44), including the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) (2.18), circulatory diseases (2.87), and cerebrovascular disease (5.46). Results are stratified by age and time.”

    David C. Reardon et al., “Deaths Associated with Pregnancy Outcome: A Record Linkage Study of Low Income Women,” Southern Medical Journal 95, no. 8 (August 2002): 834–41.

    “The age-adjusted mortality rate for women during pregnancy and within 1 year of pregnancy termination was 36.7 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies, which was significantly lower than the mortality rate among nonpregnant women, 57.0 per 100,000 person-years (relative risk [RR] 0.64, 95% CI 0.58-0.71). The mortality was lower after a birth (28.2/100,000) than after a spontaneous (51.9/100,000) or induced abortion (83.1/100,000).”

    Mika Gissler et al., “Pregnancy-Associated Mortality after Birth, Spontaneous Abortion, or Induced Abortion in Finland, 1987-2000,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 190, no. 2 (February 2004): 422–27, doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2003.08.044.

    “Only in 22% of the death certificates was the pregnancy or its end mentioned. The mortality rate was 41 per 100,000 registered ended pregnancies (27 for births, 48 for miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies, and 101 for abortions)…Register linkage is necessary to identify late maternal deaths and pregnancy-associated deaths. The current official classification of maternal deaths as indirect, direct and fortuitous is arbitrary and allows much variation in defining a maternal death.”

    M. Gissler et al., “Pregnancy-Associated Deaths in Finland 1987-1994–Definition Problems and Benefits of Record Linkage,” Acta Obstetricia Et Gynecologica Scandinavica 76, no. 7 (August 1997): 651–57.

  3. Abortions are not 100% safe and risk free because literally nothing is 100% safe and risk free. Absolute figures are nonsense without comparing the risks of abortion with the risks of not-abortion, i.e. having a baby.

    The good news for you is that the results are in: Having a baby is about fourteen (14!) times more dangerous than having an abortion: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22270271

    As for psychological damage, the authoritative meta-survey on just this topic concluded that the “best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.” http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/abortion/

    So bear that in mind when you doubt that “the Eighth Amendment is hurting thousands of Irish women every year.”

  4. It’s worth remembering that abortions are not 100% safe and risk free. In the US in the period 1973-2012 (the latest figures available) 496 women have died from legal ‘safe’ abortions.

    http://abort73.com/abortion_facts/us_abortion_statistics/

    Also having an abortion does little to protect women from the trauma of having an unwanted pregnancy:

    “There is no available evidence to suggest that abortion has therapeutic effects in reducing the mental health risks of unwanted or unintended pregnancy. There is suggestive evidence that abortion may be associated with small to moderate increases in risks of some mental health problems.”

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23553240

    So bear that in mind when you claim that “the Eighth Amendment is hurting thousands of Irish women every year.”

What are your thoughts?