‘We’ve had a lot of silence for a long time’: Ireland’s abortion battle
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Within hours of her abortion in Liverpool, Jennifer Ryan was on her way back to Dublin, a coffin with her baby’s body in the boot of the car, the heating switched off so it wouldn’t decompose. She and her partner Dave had decided that after the medical termination — where the baby receives a foeticide injection to stop the heart, and is then delivered — they wanted to bury her at home.
Ryan’s nightmare had begun in October 2012, when a 22-week scan revealed her baby had no chance of survival. “She had a really severe form of spina bifida. There was no fluid . . . because she had no kidneys. Her lungs couldn’t develop, she would never be able to breathe,” she says.
The consultant explained that given Ireland’s strict abortion laws — the eighth amendment to the constitution gives the foetus an equal right to life to the mother — Ryan had two choices. She was told: “You can continue, and I scan you weekly and induce you when there is no heartbeat — or you can travel.”
By “travel” — a euphemism with huge emotional resonance in Ireland following centuries of emigration — the consultant meant Ryan could go to the UK, where abortion is legal, and receive a termination there.
“I rang the ferry company about their policy of bringing back bodies; they said coffins just can’t be visible in the car,” Ryan explains. She was supposed to call them back with the car registration number but she didn’t “in case it was a trick and they would arrest us”.
A traumatic event was made much worse by the secrecy that followed. “You come back and you want to talk about it; you are afraid to tell the full story.” She recalls telling people that the baby’s heart had stopped and she had to be induced. “I just felt like a liar,” she says.
A week after Ryan’s abortion in Liverpool, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, died from sepsis after a prolonged miscarriage in a hospital in Galway. She had repeatedly asked for an emergency termination once she knew she was miscarrying and been denied it. “The death of Savita was really a huge catalyst in [bringing about] social change,” says veteran feminist campaigner Ailbhe Smyth. “People felt genuinely outraged. People were really saying we have to do something.”
Realising they could no longer ignore a toxic issue, politicians belatedly enacted legislation to “clarify” Ireland’s abortion law. In the event that there was a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, terminations would be permitted. But in a country where an estimated 3,000 women a year still travel to the UK for terminations, or use illegal abortion drugs at home, Halappanavar’s case only heightened the debate over legalisation.
Next month, it reaches boiling point. A referendum on May 25 will ask the people of Ireland to vote Yes or No to repealing the eighth amendment. No change to the country’s abortion laws is possible without repeal. With just weeks to go before the vote, the atmosphere is highly polarised.
For those who believe life begins at conception, the eighth amendment has saved thousands of lives. “If we can all agree that ending a baby’s life is not a good thing, the sensible thing to do would not be to introduce abortion,” says the Pro Life Campaign’s Cora Sherlock.
For others, the idea that lives have been saved by the eighth amendment is a fallacy. “Irish people are very familiar with terminations,” says Dr Rhona Mahony, the first female master of Ireland’s national maternity hospital. “They just have to travel to get them.”
Jennifer Ryan and Dave are now married with three children, Ava, 12, Hannah, four, and Eoghan, two. Over tea and biscuits at their home on a new estate in south Dublin, Ryan, now 31, relives the events of six years ago. She was, she says, stunned not just by the diagnosis but by the lack of answers given to her. All the consultant could legally do was give Ryan a slip of paper with the names and numbers of UK hospitals.
“I’m not a doctor,” she says, recalling how she had to fax her own baby scans to the Liverpool hospital. When the couple set off, having dipped into their savings, borrowed money and extended their credit cards to meet a bill that would, including travel, reach €3,000, “it felt like we were leaving under cover of darkness . . . We were so fearful.”
If Ireland votes Yes in the referendum, the government has proposed legislating to allow abortions up to 12 weeks — and later if there is a risk to the life or of serious harm to the health of the pregnant woman, or the baby cannot survive. This is roughly in line with most other European countries but it would be a huge shift, one more step in Ireland’s journey from one of the world’s most Catholic countries to somewhere vastly more secular and liberal.
Ireland’s vote for marriage equality in a 2015 referendum was seen by many as a sign that the country was distancing itself from its Catholic roots following years of scandals. Paedophile priests, unmarked graves for unwanted babies in places like the Tuam mother and baby home and the Magdalene laundries that confined unmarried mothers — all took a toll.
In the Dublin office for Ireland’s pro-choice campaign, Smyth tells me that while the vast majority of people in the country “still consider themselves Catholic, they do so without accepting the moral authority of the Catholic church in matters of personal morality”. But abortion, which occupies a particular place in the Irish psyche, promises to be the acid test for how far Ireland has changed. “It is getting over what has been taught, drilled down over decades, that abortion is murder,” says Smyth. “It’s a very emotional issue.”
To understand Ireland’s attitude to abortion, it helps to go back to 1983 and the vote that introduced the eighth amendment. I was then a 12-year-old from a small town in south-east Ireland and remember it well. Terminations were already illegal — but, in the context of a global easing of abortion rules, campaigners, politicians and clergy feared future liberalisation and wanted to enshrine it in the constitution.
The shadow of Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that allowed for abortion in the US, loomed large. Ireland, it was said, could be a shining light in a worldwide battle against abortion.
In Ireland’s predominantly Catholic schools, children were taught that life began at conception. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child came to my secondary school to educate us on abortion, and in classroom debates we agreed unanimously that the procedure was murder. Not only did abortion kill innocent babies, we were told, but women were damaged by terminations too. All around me, girls wore a tiny gold badge of an infant’s feet, the pro-life symbol.
There were plenty of real babies too. Months after the vote was passed, a pregnant 15-year-old walked out of her classroom in Longford, into a nearby religious grotto, gave birth and died. A dead baby was found discarded on a beach in Kerry; another buried at a farm in the same county. Unmarried mothers either gave the baby up for adoption or kept it and risked being forever seen as “damaged goods”. When a local girl “got into trouble”, I was shocked when a school friend joked that she should “drink vodka, sit in the bath and pray”.
Back then, being against abortion seemed so intrinsic to Catholicism — and Catholicism itself so intrinsic to being Irish — that it was impossible to imagine things would ever be different.
The debate in 1983 was so divisive that some referred to it as the “second partitioning of Ireland”, with the first being the 1921 border that created Northern Ireland. With hindsight, this talk of division seems strange — I didn’t meet anyone pro abortion until I moved to the UK at 17. The vociferousness of the rhetoric made it difficult to voice a contrary opinion.
How have Irish attitudes changed since then? Supporting abortion in 1983 meant you were part of a radical fringe. That referendum was passed with 67 per cent voting in favour of the eighth amendment. Smyth, who has campaigned for change for more than three decades, believes “there are far more people now who are somewhere in the middle, [who say] ‘I wouldn’t describe myself as pro choice but we need to do something to solve the problem we have’”.
The reduced influence of the church is a factor, according to Smyth, who as a campaigner grew used to receiving phone calls in the middle of the night from people who recited the rosary to her. “For voters under the age of 45, I don’t think their first impulse is to define themselves as Irish and Catholic.” But the opening up of Ireland has also been key. It is now a far less insular place than it was 30 years ago. More women are speaking up about their experiences. Abortion is increasingly talked about and, significantly, not as a moral issue, but as a healthcare one.
Dublin’s Holles Street maternity hospital, run by Rhona Mahony, enjoys fame for its role in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Read the Holles Street chapter, she laughs, and its pornographic language makes it clear why Joyce was banned in Ireland for so long.
The laughter ends when Mahony, 47, starts to discuss Ireland’s abortion laws, and their impact on Irish patients and doctors. Doctors can terminate a pregnancy when the mother’s life is at risk but face a 14-year jail sentence if they make the wrong call. “What is a substantial risk of dying? Ten per cent? Twenty per cent? Where is the opportunity for the woman to have an opinion as to what she sees as substantial risk?” she asks.
Some infections, such as chorioamnionitis, can endanger a mother’s life, says Mahony. “A woman can look very well at 9am and by lunchtime she can be moribund. [Infections] can make you sick, they can also kill you. When do you traverse that point with precision?”
It is the utmost hypocrisy, she adds, that under the 13th amendment to the constitution, introduced in 1992, women can legally travel for an abortion, yet that same woman faces a 14-year prison sentence if she had the procedure at home. For Mahony, the idea at the heart of the eighth amendment is flawed: “If a mother dies, the baby dies too. It doesn’t make sense to talk about equal right [to life] prior to foetal viability.”
This is a reasonably common view in Dublin, a modern European capital with the intimacy of a small town, and in other Irish cities, where some see the eighth amendment as part of an earlier era where women’s sexuality was carefully policed, contraception was difficult to get and there was a constitutional ban on divorce (it was legalised in 1996).
“We’ve had a lot of silence about [abortion] for a long time,” says Cara Sanquest, a 27-year-old law student at Trinity College. “We are caring, we are compassionate: the fact we exile women to access healthcare is not coherent with that.”
There remains, however, a deep conservatism in some other areas. Clonmel in Tipperary is a three-hour drive south from Dublin and very much part of Ireland’s rural heartlands. In its Franciscan Friary, there is a poster saying that abortion kills 120,000 babies a day, details of a prayer crusade to stop repeal — say the rosary each day during Lent — and leaflets with special prayers to save Ireland from the “scourge of abortion”.
I meet Bridget, 74, leaving mass. What does she think of the vote? “I know people who did it [had abortions]. Don’t ask me how. It ruined their lives,” she says. One woman later died after suicide. “It was the guilt that got her,” Bridget says. “I am going to save the eighth, otherwise [having an abortion] will be like having a tooth out,” she concludes.
A morning’s worth of local conversations — mostly women and a mix of ages — gives me 10 opinions. More than half seem to be against repeal of the eighth, with a few undecided. One man, 48, tells me he is unequivocally pro choice, but says the debate has been muddied by concerns about the legislation that could follow repeal. Twelve weeks is a big jump from the status quo and pro-life campaigners repeatedly argue that it is a slippery slope. “[Voters] want people to have choice, but they don’t want to be responsible for a foetus being aborted at 13 or 14 weeks,” he says.
Mattie McGrath, Clonmel’s TD, or member of parliament, is well known in Ireland for his pro-life views and has attended rallies to save the eighth. The walls of his small yet busy constituency office are covered in pictures of him at local fairs and shop openings. There are pro-life brochures on the coffee table, alluding to the availability of “lunchtime abortions” in the UK.
McGrath, 59, tells me he treats everyone who turns up at his door with compassion. He explains his support for the pro-life issue by declaring himself a family man and shows me a picture on the wall of his eight children, all lined up in order of height. “I believe life is life, from conception to death,” he says. “If you murder a week-old boy, it is murder. It [abortion] has been sanitised by the Murdoch-owned papers, you can’t call it what it is. It is in God’s commandments, ‘Thou shalt not kill’.”
When I tell him about Jennifer Ryan’s case, one of many women whose babies received a fatal diagnosis, he agrees “it is devastating” but adds that he believes “no clinician or consultant can say how long a baby will live”. There should be proper support for families in this situation, he says (pro-life campaigners want better provision of perinatal palliative care) and, for crisis pregnancies in general, more consideration of adoption as a meaningful alternative. “If our parents had aborted us,” he says, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.”
His opposition to abortion sits alongside a deep conviction that “every part of rural Ireland has been abandoned”. He says: “We are seen as an irritant in Dublin, we are seen as backward.” The leaders of Ireland’s main political parties back repeal, but many of their individual members are torn, and McGrath is settling in for the long haul. “If the referendum passes, I don’t think the government will muster a majority to pass legislation,” he says. “It is a long way to go yet [before abortion is introduced].”
McGrath’s politics loom large in Clonmel. Anita Byrne, a stay-at-home mum and local pro-choice campaigner handing out leaflets on abortion on O’Connell Street, says, “We are at a disadvantage because Mattie McGrath is our TD here, but he doesn’t represent everyone.” She later messages me to tell me that Tipperary’s pro-choice movement now has 130 volunteers.
While Ireland’s bishops have called on people to vote to save the eighth, McGrath and other pro-life leaders are keen to distance this most Catholic of issues from a now damaged church. “Repeal campaigners are very anxious to think this is a religious issue, tied up with the Catholic church. I meet with a lot of young people. What I find is that all generations don’t see it as a religious issue at all — they see it as a human rights issue,” says Cora Sherlock, the deputy chair of the Pro Life Campaign.
The solicitor and writer, 42, has campaigned on pro-life issues since the 1990s. She tells me she has received some abuse online for her views but that strangers regularly approach her with their support. Should we trust women to make the best choice for themselves, I ask? “I trust women 100 per cent, I am a woman,” she replies. “What I would say is that, in Ireland, it is very much the pro-choice movement that doesn’t trust women. There has been an attempt to keep women in the dark about vital issues. None of those parliamentary and public committees looked at the reality of development of the baby in the womb.”
Sherlock doesn’t see historical cases such as the Magdalene laundries as pertinent to the upcoming vote. “Thankfully, that is many years ago. I don’t think it is appropriate to talk about these things in the context of abortion.” Yet it’s clear as I travel around Ireland that the past looms large for some.
I head to Greystones, a coastal town south of Dublin, to meet Gaye Brennan and her husband Gerry Edwards. In 2001, they found themselves travelling for an induced labour at 22 weeks — considered an abortion under Irish law — after they were told their baby had a neural tube defect, a fatal foetal abnormality, and couldn’t survive. “We felt abandoned,” Edwards says. “You feel like you are being judged by your country, everyone in it. You feel totally alone.”
They did have the support of their families. As we talk, Brennan’s mother Stephanie brings coffee and cake. She tells a story about being called by a friend who worked with a women’s centre in the 1970s and asked her to go to a nearby phone box. A woman aged 17 or 18 was there with a baby she had delivered herself and wrapped in a curtain.
Stephanie took her to hospital, where a nurse told the young woman, “She should be ashamed of herself, that this will teach her to go flaunting herself”. The baby was later given up for adoption.
Pro-choice campaigners hope their cause will be helped by the fact that so many women have emerged to tell similarly shocking stories. But going public with an abortion can still open women up to abuse. When actor and comedian Tara Flynn revealed she had had an abortion, a senior member of the ruling Fine Gael party tweeted that she “couldn’t be bothered having a baby so she had it killed”. He later resigned.
When I meet Flynn, 48, in Dublin, she is fresh from her one-woman show, Not a Funny Word, which tells the story of her trip to Utrecht in the Netherlands for an abortion. Her contraception had failed, she took the morning after pill, and did four pregnancy tests to confirm the result. She flew over for the day, only deciding at the last minute to have an anaesthetic and paying for it on her credit card. “I was 37, on my own, an actor. I didn’t have cash flow, I didn’t want to be a parent,” she says.
The shame and stigma weighed heavily on her. “I knew I had to keep it secret and I didn’t know who I might lose [if I told them],” she says. “I was being made to feel like a criminal; I knew in my heart I wasn’t. It feels very oppressive, it feels heavy, it feels dark, it feels isolating. To keep someone else comfortable, you are supposed to keep all this secret.”
There are no jokes in her play, she says, but much dark humour, which she acknowledges can be healing. Yet the fate of the women who suffered in previous generations haunts her: “I feel for people who are gone and who lived their whole lives with this. We let them down.”
A little over a year after her trip to Liverpool, Jennifer Ryan gave birth to her daughter Hannah. She told a midwife her story. The midwife said the same thing had happened to her a decade previously and Ryan was the first person, other than her husband, she had told about it. Ryan thought then that she had to speak out, in the hope that her story might persuade at least one person to change their mind about abortion.
Polls have consistently suggested strong support for repeal, though this has slipped as May 25 draws near. The latest Irish Times/MRBI poll shows 47 per cent in favour of repeal, 28 per cent against and 20 per cent undecided. “Some days, I am really optimistic, other days . . . it is a Yes or No [vote], that is a big ask for a lot of people, there is a massive middle ground that could go either way,” says Ryan.
Pro-life campaigners characterise the vote as a battle to save lives. “Once a baby enters the continuum of life, that baby is deserving of the same protection. It is like saying a toddler is not the same as an old-aged pensioner — they are one of us, they deserve to be protected,” says Sherlock.
Pro-choice campaigners, meanwhile, have a different line. They will remind people that on the day of the vote, as on every day, nine women will typically leave Ireland to have an abortion overseas. Whatever happens, perhaps Rhona Mahony puts it most succinctly. “Terminations will continue,” she says. “They have done since the beginning of time.”
Orla Ryan is a writer and editor at the FT