The Root of Ireland’s Abortion Problem

Abortion is once again in the news in Ireland. Clare Daly’s latest attempt to introduce legislation reforming the laws on abortion in Ireland has failed. The Independent Socialist TD tabled a bill that would permit the termination of a pregnancy where a fatal foetal abnormality had been detected. It was defeated yesterday by 104 votes to 20, with Labour TD Anne Ferris defying the whip to vote in support of Daly’s bill. The bill comes just one week after BBC Three broadcast Abortion: Ireland’s Guilty Secret?, a documentary that reflected on the pro-life and pro-choice divide on the island of Ireland. The story of one young unnamed woman who travelled secretly to England and flew back home while bleeding heavily the same evening was particularly distressing. The documentary lifted the veil on what has previously been deemed ‘Ireland’s hidden diaspora’. This term — used as the title of Anne Rossiter’s 2009 book — aptly describes the thousands of Irishwomen who have quietly made the journey to Britain to end their pregnancies for an array of reasons. Recently, though, such women have not been so quiet and, particularly after the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, more and more women have spoken out against Ireland’s laws on abortion.

Abortion Reform

The root of Ireland’s abortion problem — leaving aside the moral debate about the right to life — lies in the eighth amendment to the constitution. That legislation was not well thought-out. It was not the product of considered political deliberation. And as state papers in the National Archives clearly show, Attorneys General expressed grave concern about its nature. Yet, despite this, it was successfully put before the Irish public in a referendum in 1983.

The English Abortion Act of 1967 contributed to the momentum for reform of abortion law internationally. Subsequent legislation varied between abortions for a particular reason in countries like Finland (1970) and Italy (1978) and elective abortions in countries such as Austria (1974) and Sweden (1974). There had been whisperings of the issue in Ireland during the 1970s in the context of the debating surrounding the legalisation of the sale of contraceptives. Catholic Family Life had argued that ‘Abortion cannot be divorced from contraception’, while Parent Concern claimed ‘Contraception means promiscuity and abortion’. Foreshadowing what was to come during the following decade, the Irish Family League produced a small leaflet advocating an amendment that would enshrine a ban on abortion in the constitution.

The Pro-Life Amendment Campaign

The Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) was officially launched at a press conference chaired by Dr Julia Vaughan (gynaecologist, former nun and one-time assistant master at Holles Street Maternity Hospital) on 27 April 1981. PLAC was composed of a myriad of Catholic and pro-life groups, the most prominent of which was the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), which had been set up in Britain in January 1967 in response to the Abortion Act, 1967. Following the press conference, PLAC delegations met separately with Fianna Fáil’s Charlie Haughey, Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald and Labour’s Frank Cluskey and Barry Desmond.

As we know, the early 1980s were a period of great political instability (and as the early part of the decade unfolded, it brought with it three general elections in the space of eighteen months). Such was the power and reach of PLAC, that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were anxious to secure their support. Conscious of alienating the conservative vote when a change of government was possible, both parties acceded to PLAC’s request. One voter angrily dismissed this in a letter to the Irish Farmers Journal as an ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ attitude. With the promise of a referendum secured, abortion consequently did not feature heavily on the campaign 1981 general election, which replaced Haughey’s government with a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. FitzGerald appeared to pull back from his earlier stance, however, and his Constitutional Crusade must be taken into consideration here. Having declared that he wanted to build a pluralist Ireland, enshrining a ban on abortion in the constitution was hardly compatible.

Opposition from Attorneys General 

Of more importance, though, was the influence of his Attorney General Peter Sutherland who was of the opinion that a constitutional amendment was unnecessary, as, according to his interpretation, the right to life of the unborn was already protected under existing legislation. Moreover, as clearly shown in state papers held at the National Archives of Ireland, he was uncomfortable with the wording. PLAC had proposed

The state recognises the absolute right to life of every unborn child from conception, and accordingly guarantees to respect and protect such a right by law.

Sutherland felt that the wording of the amendment was ‘ambiguous’ and ‘unsatisfactory’, and that it would ‘lead inevitably to confusion and uncertainty’. He argued that this could create a dangerous situation in which a dcotor faced with the dilemma of saving the life of the mother through a termination, having regard to the equal rights of the unborn and the mother, would conclude that he could do nothing — a dilemma not dissimilar to that which faced the medical team that treated Savita Halappanavar. Significantly, Sutherland advised against putting such an amendment to the people.

In the end, FitzGerald’s government proved to be short-lived, and was brought down by the budget. The ensuing election restored Haughey to power. He immediately announced his government’s intention to hold a referendum on the abortion question, but, as was the case with FitzGerald, behind the scenes the new Taoiseach was also being advised not to proceed. Martin Mansergh, for example, advised that such a move would be damaging to North-South relations: a pro-life amendment would be used by political opponents in the North as an argument against reunification.

Like his predecessor, the new Attorney General Patrick Connolly also had concerns about the wording. Significantly, he advised that, leaving his own views aside, rape and incest could not be exempt and that this would also be the case regardless of the mental state of the mother in cases where the foetus was so deformed that life outside the womb would not be possible. His predictions foreshadowed what would later become known as the X-Case (In 1992, the High Court granted an injunction preventing a 14-year-old-girl, pregnant as a result of rape, from travelling to England for an abortion). 

After various re-drafts, the text of the amendment was finally agreed at a meeting on 2 November 1982, but the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Bill lapsed following the collapse of Haughey’s government. The election campaign that followed was bitter, foreshadowing what was to come during the referendum campaign. FitzGerald was returned to power.

On 7 September 1983, the Irish people were asked to vote on the eighth amendment to the constitution. By a majority of two to one, the referendum was carried. Its implementation has cast a long shadow. As the state papers clearly show, both political leaders were advised by their Attorney General not to proceed. But political expediency won out. However, it is important to consider the actions of both men and their government in the context of the contemporary political and social climate. By 841,233 votes to 416,136, the Irish public had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the amendment. Although Ireland was a country in transition, there was still a continuing conservatism. For an older generation especially, there was clear anxiety as they tried to locate their place in a changing Ireland where traditional values were no longer a certainty. That Ireland now no longer exists. Although a strong pro-life lobby remains, it is no longer the dominant view in Irish society.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

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