Last week in Dublin I was part of an event, “Too Loud a Silence: Abortion and Censorship in Irish Media,” organized by an Irish activist group, the Abortion Rights Campaign, at the Teachers’ Club in Parnell Square. The room was packed with women, young and not-so-young, which is something you don’t always see at an American pro-choice event. I read from my no-longer-quite-so-new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, and a splendid panel—social policy researcher Goretti Horgan, journalist Carol Hunt and activist Angela Coraccio—dissected the sorry state of reproductive rights in Ireland now, where abortion is banned except, theoretically, when the woman would die or commit suicide (we have the horrific death of Savita Halappanavar in 2013 to thank for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which provides that extremely narrow exemption). Penalty for taking an abortion pill like those bought on the Internet by women all over the world? Up to fourteen years in prison.
The best part, though, was the comments from the floor. (As with every reproductive-rights event I’ve attended in my whole long life, only a sprinkling of men were present, something to think about next time someone proposes men “get a say” in what goes on in a woman’s womb.) Woman after woman rose to express, with all the famous eloquence of the Irish, her hot indignation about the treatment of herself and other women, especially mothers. “When you have a child with special needs, the first lesson you learn in this country is you’re on your bloody own,” said one mother of a disabled child. Catholic schools “won’t have a policy to not admit your child, but they’ll let you know…that you’d be better going on up the road.” You would think Ireland would reward single mothers for doing the right thing, since it is so keen to force the pregnant women to give birth, but no. The government is much the same as a callous boyfriend who drops you once the baby’s born. “Single mothers are on. their. own!” shouted one woman, to a ripple of agreement from the crowd. Another told of a friend with a small son and a baby with special needs who was placed in filthy housing—a room over a pub overrun with drug addicts. “When they walked in, her 6-year-old said, ‘Mommy, this isn’t suitable for Josh’—the child with special needs. And this is happening by the same people who are limiting our reproductive rights.”
The evening reminded me of a claim made by Ross Douthat and some other anti-abortion social conservatives when Texas was passing a serious round of restrictions in 2013, that restricting abortion need not hold back women’s advancement, and that Ireland was a good example of that. I challenged Douthat on that at the time. Yes, Ireland is a modern European welfare state, although a meager one compared to some others, but it’s also still strongly patriarchal: only 15 percent of members of the Dáil, Ireland’s Parliament, are female; women are less likely to work outside the home than in comparable nations, and—despite the fact that, as in most of the developed world, women are better educated than men—they earn far less, and rarely reach the top of their field. (On the plus side, Ireland has had two women presidents, while we’re still working on our first one.) There’s plenty of violence against women, and plenty of poverty among single mothers. Affordable childcare? Vanishingly hard to find, which is one reason for those low female-employment figures. (Forty-two percent of children are being cared for by grandparents, prompting Irish Times columnist Anthea McTeirnan to ask, “Should grandmothers be minding the kids or running the world?”) No wonder the birth rate is declining and women are increasingly postponing childbearing: the age at first birth is now 32, one of the latest in the EU.