Abortion: Ireland's reckoning with Amendment 8

Calling for an end to a constitution that bans abortion - and kills women, a deep and broad based movement has sprung up in Ireland to change the constitution, and finally release women's bodies from church and state.

Beatrix Campbell
25 November 2014

Every so often the tragedy of a woman or a baby throws spectral light on the constitution of Ireland. A teenage asylum seeker fled her home country after being raped, sought asylum in Ireland where she discovered that she was pregnant. Instantly, she is said to have asked for an abortion.

But abortion is not only illegal in Ireland, it is forbidden by the constitution: she could not flee again – she was without  papers, and could not, therefore, travel. Her only hope was to be deemed suicidal  by a review panel. The weeks churned by. Finally, it is believed that two psychiatrists said yes; one doctor said no. She refused food and drink, became seriously ill, and at 24 weeks was subjected to a caesarian.  

The baby lives – on the edge of human viability and stateless, born out of rape to a woman whose human rights had been denigrated and then denied. 

Defenders of the constitutional ban on abortion hastened to say: good outcome: ‘no one died.’

But the case has accelerated a wider, deeper movement to change the constitution.

At the beginning of September a conference called in Dublin to support a coalition to take women’s bodies out of the constitution attracted so many  - from feminists to doctors, human rights and trade union activists - that it had to move to a  larger venue in O’Connell Street.

The move to this emblematic avenue was not without poignance - it was re-named in honour of the catholic Emancipator Daniel O’Connell after independence in 1923: it was then, said one of the organisers, Pauline Conroy, ‘with smoke still rising from burnt out buildings, executed bodies still scarcely buried from the civil war’ that the liberators rushed in laws to punish unmarried mothers and ban films deemed ‘contrary to public morality,’ indecent or blasphemous.

‘The birth of the state was mired in its outcasting of women.’ said Conroy, a social policy researcher and writer.

Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland exposed the calvary of the young asylum seeker, now known as Ms Y, in the summer, just after Ireland had been excoriated by the UN Human Rights Committee for ‘severe mental suffering caused by the denial of abortion services to women seeking abortions due to rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities or serious risk to health.’

Committee chairperson Sir Nigel Rodley said that the state treated raped women as mere’ vessels’, it doomed a women to continue a crisis pregnancy ‘at risk of criminal penalties’, irrespective of risks to her health, he said. 

Prof. Rodley told a review of Ireland’s human rights record that a living woman’s life should have priority over the rights of the unborn, insisted ‘I can’t understand by what belief system the priority would be given to the latter rather than the former.’

The case of Ms Y has roused fervent scrutiny of Ireland’s constitution. ‘If ever there was a tipping point in the national historic drama of Irish abortion laws, this latest horror is it,’ says Rachel Doyle, of the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

It is part of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.

The repeal movement was ignited by another tragedy: the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavan, a professional woman at risk of miscarriage. Denied an abortion that she could have accessed in her home country, unable to travel because she was gravely ill, both the foetus and Ms Halappanavan died. 

Feminist veterans from four decades of campaigning for reproductive rights initiated a campaign for nothing less than repeal of the Eighth Amendment. “If Amendment Eight remains there is no possibility of pro-choice legislation,’ insists one of the founders, Ailbhe Smyth. ‘The Supreme Court can introduce liberal interpretations, but the constitution is always telling women: your life can be jeopardized by the equal rights of a foetus.’

The two latest cases are emblematic of a different Ireland: ‘Attitudes are changing as Ireland becomes more modern, more multi-cultural,’ says Rachel Doyle. These weren’t women from the fastnesses of rural Ireland.

A new presence is Doctors for Choice – almost unthinkable in the 1970s:  ‘Myself and a couple of others were sick of it, said Cork GP, Dr Mary Favier. ‘so we formed Doctors for Choice,’ It was Savita Hallapannavan’s death that roused hundreds of doctors, ‘we’ve been flooded with calls,’ says Favier. 

The Ms Y case exposes what the system does to women who are stateless or too ill, too poor, too traumatised to travel:  ‘If we had been thinking of a hypothetical case to illustrate the pregnancy crisis in this country we could not have scripted this,’ said Dr Favier, ‘we could not have imagined something so bad’. Increasingly doctors feel that their medical ethics are compromised by the constitution and by church power over health: hospitals in Ireland, though state-funded, are typically owned by the catholic church. 

Medical professionals have been warned: Archbishop Eamon  Martin said in May, ‘you are excommunicating yourself’ if you aid or abet a woman’s access to abortion – an injunction that extends from medical professionals to legislators. But the Irish Medical News reported in February 2012 findings of a survey among GPs and trainee doctors: 52 per cent believed that abortion should be available to any woman who chose it. That corresponds to opinions in the population. 

But prevailing public opinion does not steer the political system. Politicians’ readiness to franchise health and welfare to the church,  despite the exposure of ‘gross abuses of power and people by religious orders and clergy’ has characterised Ireland’s ‘deeply flawed democracy,’ writes Niall Hunter, editor of  Irish Health. ‘It is the state and taxpayer, not priests, bishops or nuns who are paying for it and should be allowed to run it without potential interference.’

Ms Y’s crisis takes us back to 1983: confronted by liberation movements and abortion law reform in the UK and the US, the church sought to reassert its authority and to pre-empt women’s future access to abortion by constitutionalising a ban. A referendum in 1983 passed Amendment Eight giving an unborn foetus and a woman equal rights. 

The 1980s marked the great defeat in Ireland of the spirit of Pope John 23’s Vatican Council II  - a brief but beautiful encounter with modernity that still inspires Ireland’s celebrated Dominican intellectual, Sister Margaret McCurtain. That was a time, she told me, which emboldened many women in religious orders to undertake emancipating work in the big wide world. The counter-reformation found its most commodious home in the republic. However, the church’s ‘focus on women's sexuality introduced a new discourse,’ says Sr McCurtain, ‘It brought women's sexuality into vision.’ The clergy's control  had been secured by the ‘concealment of pain’, the pain of women and children.

But in its moment of triumph, the church was scalded by revelations of institutional cruelty, ‘children who have been abused and women who have been horribly mutilated and starved of economic sustenance’.

One bleak afternoon in January 1984 Ann Lovett left her convent school in Granard and took herself to the grotto of a local churchyard. She was discovered lying in her own blood below a statue of the Virgin Mary. Her dead baby lay beside her and by the time an ambulance reached her she was dead. 

Although no one appeared to know what was going on in her life, everyone knew why she died. 

Later that year, a beach at Carhirciveen on the Kerry coast yielded the body of a baby boy. His neck had been broken and he had been stabbed 20 times.

A murder squad insisted that a young countrywoman, Joanne Hayes, who had been pregnant, had killed the baby on the beach. She and her family confessed, but later retracted: there had been a baby, they said, but it had been born on the farm, died a little later and was buried in a field. Dead babies were Ireland’s open secret. When the police decided that she had been pregnant with both babies – at the same time – and killed them, the unknown infants became part of a gothic scandal: in less than a year after the abortion referendum, the Kerry Babies Case was born.

The Kerry Babies case was chronicled by Ireland’s buccaneering feminist writer Nell McCafferty: it was, she wrote, a moment of national shame.  ‘His tombstone, raised by public subscription, says, ‘In Loving Memory of Me, the Kerry Baby’.

A six-month judicial tribunal of investigation into the case in Tralee provoked a gentle mass movement, initiated by Tralee’s feminists who encouraged  people from all over the world to send yellow roses to the woman. Flowers flooded the tribunal. ‘Raucous, ignorant urban-dwellers’, complained the judge. ‘Women in Ireland were humiliated by the Kerry babies case,’ recalled Sister Margaret McCurtain, ‘but by the end of that inquiry sensibility had changed’, she said. Having dragged women’s sexuality and sin into vision it could not now throw them back into fearful obscurity.

A decade later the impact of the constitutional prohibition was branded on Ireland’s consciousness in the X case: a 14-year-old girl was abused, raped and left pregnant by a neighbour. The girl was suicidal and her parents sought an abortion for her in 1992. They were refused. They decided to go to England for an abortion. But before leaving they sought advice from the Gardai (the police) about whether the DNA of the foetus could be brought to court if they were prosecuted. That alerted the Gardai, and the Attorney General Harry Whelehan secured an injunction under Amendment Eight.

The crisis prompted Albert Reynolds’ government to put abortion to referendums again – this time with three themes: an anti-choice proposal to remove suicide risk as grounds for abortion and two pro-choice amendments on the right to travel and the right to information. Every county of Ireland voted against the anti-abortionists’ bid to remove suicide.  Ireland voted for the right to travel and the right to access information.

More than a dozen women a day go to England for an abortion - around 4000 women a year. When the UK parliament passed the 1987 Abortion Act, ‘Irish women, north and south, took to the boats immediately,’” said Pauline Conroy. ‘There’s a huge amount of local fund-raising for women going to England - whip-rounds, raffles, people selling lingerie, whatever, in their houses. They’ll say someone has to go to England. “England, oh yes,” people say…It is very collective.’  It costs around £1500 for a woman to make the trip. Now young women are mapping which chemists are helpful. ‘There’s a lot of minor rebellions to fund a way around the law,’ said Conroy. 

Ireland is now much more like any other European country: though its birth rate remains relatively high, a third of babies are born to unmarried parents; around 150,000 women have had terminations since the early 1980s, says IFPA, though the figure from England is believed to be an underestimate.  

But the Y case has dramatised the fate of those who can’t go to England. Their tragedy is stirring Ireland to confront the complacency that the right to travel and to information seems to have induced. ‘It is the women who can’t go anywhere whose fate is in the hands of a very rigid state,’ said Rachel Doyle. The Repeal Amendment 8 campaign wants, finally, to release women’s bodies from church and state. 

This article was first published in September 2014. It is republished here in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014



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