Ireland has been through a gay rights revolution, but its support for abortion isn’t a certainty

Even if the country is becoming more culturally liberal in many respects, opposition to abortion is deeply ingrained

Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura
Wednesday 23 May 2018 17:58
Demonstrators at an anti-abortion rally ahead of the vote tomorrow
Demonstrators at an anti-abortion rally ahead of the vote tomorrow

When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, Judy Donnelly has been something of a rebel over the years. Like much of Ireland, she supported contraception, voted in a referendum to legalise divorce and, three years ago, backed same-sex marriage.

That last vote was joyously celebrated around the country and the world, placing Ireland, which elected its first gay prime minister last year, at the vanguard of what many called a social revolution.

But when it comes to the historic decision on legalising abortion, which will be put to the nation tomorrow, Donnelly says she will vote No, as will enough of her countrymen and women, including lawmakers across the political divide, to throw the referendum result into doubt. Polls for the vote have narrowed so tightly in recent weeks that Yes and No campaigners are not able to confidently predict a victory.

Donnelly, 46, who works in a pub in Carrigtwohill, found no contradiction in giving gay men and lesbians their marital rights, a triumphant affirmation of their social inclusion – Ireland decriminalised homosexuality only in 1993 – while denying what many say is a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body.

“It’s just not the same,” she says, pausing as she struggles to articulate what exactly is the difference between the two. “It’s about values and morals. It’s just not the same,” she repeats, before lapsing into silence.

The curious dynamic underscores the complex reality that even if Ireland is becoming more culturally liberal in many respects, opposition to abortion is more deeply ingrained.

The reasons are complicated and nuanced: a history of female oppression; the church’s continuing grip over sexual education; a malaise over discussions about sex and sexual health; and very private experiences around miscarriages, foetal deformities, adoption difficulties and spousal disagreements over whether to keep a baby.

A woman convicted of having an illegal termination faces 14 years imprisonment under current Irish law

A big part of the problem, many Irish people say, is that there is a legacy of sex being a taboo subject and that the negative consequences of sexual activity, including infections or unplanned pregnancies, are seen through a moral lens rather than as health issues.

Even though 40 per cent of children in the country are born to unmarried mothers and fathers, many say there is still some stigma around unmarried mothers.

Ironically, it took a gay prime minister, Leo Varadkar, to call for this referendum that will essentially ask voters to repeal a 1983 amendment to the Irish constitution that gives a foetus the same right to life as the mother and allow unrestricted terminations of pregnancies for up to 12 weeks.

“I know I come across as a hypocrite,” says Darren Haddock, 48, a taxi driver who initially planned to vote in favour of abortion because he saw it as a woman’s right. But now, he says, “We’re talking about hurting a life.”

The referendum on same-sex marriage was different, he says. “The time was right for Ireland to come out of the Dark Ages, to break the shackles from the church, and it was a victory for people to stand up to it,” he says.

Donnelly, who recently divorced, voted in favour of same-sex marriage because her sister-in-law was part of the first gay couple to get married in England. Another cousin is gay, and recently got married, too.

'We sat crying in the airport for hours': Irish couple who had to travel to England for abortion share their experience

When it comes to abortion, she reflects on some of her other relatives who had miscarriages, having wanted children badly. “And then you have people who cross over to England to get an abortion,” she adds, although she says there are some exceptions, as in the cases of rape or incest. “But just because you made a boo-boo doesn’t mean you get an abortion.”

Still, she voted in three previous referendums allowing women to have abortions if their lives were in danger, to travel abroad for the procedure and to have access to information about it. The legalisation of abortion, she says, would “make it easier for people to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just go and rid of it.’”

Donnelly speaks as an older woman slowly pushes a pushchair up the street, carrying two baby dolls under plastic wrapping to protect against a cold drizzle. Haddock recalls seeing the woman nearly four decades ago, when he was a child. She’s had several miscarriages, he explains, and hasn’t stopped pushing the carriage ever since.

The referendum will ask voters to repeal a 1983 amendment to the constitution that gives a foetus the same right to life as the mother

For Una Mullally, who edited the book Repeal the 8th, a reference to the eighth amendment that essentially bans abortion in Ireland, the answer to the dichotomy over gay and women’s rights is control.

“Misogyny is much more embedded in Irish life than homophobia,” she says. “Ireland has a terrible history of oppressing women, and the legacy of the Catholic Church is control,” she adds, referring to the thousands of unmarried women who became pregnant and were placed into servitude or mental health hospitals since the 18th century until as recent as the mid-1990s.

Even when the country in 1985 legalised condoms to be sold without prescriptions, she says, it was to deal with the Aids epidemic, rather than to give women their reproductive rights.

“Women’s autonomy has always been viewed with suspicion or through a lens that is very bizarre,” she says.

In Cork, Ireland’s second-biggest city, placards for opposing campaigns are attached to almost every street lamp, but the mood is subdued. Most people interviewed for this article do not want their names published; many of them haven’t even spoken about the subject with their friends, let alone their families.

“Oh God, no,” exclaims a 24-year-old barista named Maedhbh who works in a coffee shop.

“My grandparents don’t want to engage in it,” she says, just as her grandfather Paddy walks in. When asked about the referendum, he stops in his tracks and pretends to be hard of hearing. “You could be shot for giving an answer,” a customer standing nearby says smirking, before rushing out the door. “There’s a saying in Irish: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’”

While the church’s influence has fallen drastically in most spheres of Irish life, its hold on sexual education remains strong – the institution still controls most schools in the country.

Even young, internet-savvy Irish people in their early twenties speak about receiving more of a lesson in biology, and a cursory one at that, than instructions about sexual health and safety.

While the church’s influence has fallen drastically in most spheres of Irish life, its hold on sexual education remains strong

“When we were 16 we had two lads, monks, come in to talk about abstinence, and that one in 10 people get pregnant and that you can still get STDs from wearing condoms,” says Ben Collins, a 22-year-old student, who plans to vote to legalise abortion. “It was basically fear. The Catholic influence is so big here, but you don’t even realise it.”

Deirdre Allinen, 32, recalls sitting in a classroom and having nuns wheel in a television before being a shown a grisly video about abortion. “Then we’d say the rosary and stand around praying,” she says. “The way it’s taught to us, it’s still in me. The curriculum is still hidden in our brains. It took me a long time to shake it off.”

As a result, Ireland has never had a conversation about sex being a positive thing, says Will St Leger, an artist and HIV activist who is on a crusade to reform sex education in schools.

“A lot of these issues around sexual health and reproductive rights all stem from a lack of information and shame,” he says. “That’s the biggest element – what we do with our bodies and with other people carries shame.”

© New York Times

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