Here’s one way to look at abortion in Ireland: it doesn’t happen, and it doesn’t need to happen, because women can easily take a cheap flight to England and end their pregnancies there.
Here’s another way to look at abortion in Ireland: the penalty for self-abortion is up to fourteen years; the penalty in a recent high-profile Cork rape case was seven years. In other words, a woman who takes an abortion pill she buys illegally on the Internet after being impregnated in a sexual assault could face twice as much prison time—or more—as her rapist.
Last year, after much uproar and in the teeth of the Catholic Church, the Irish Parliament passed a law permitting abortion when there is a “real and substantial risk” to a pregnant woman’s life. Better late than never: it had been twenty-one years since the constitutional court directed the government to formalize policy on life-saving abortions. That ruling had come in the wake of the case of Miss X, a 14-year-old rape victim who became suicidal after the government barred her from leaving the country for an abortion. (A court eventually allowed her to leave.) It took another tragedy to force the issue: the horrific 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, who died of septicemia because doctors refused to complete her protracted miscarriage as long as the fetus had a heartbeat.
This very narrow law leaves Ireland in the company of some fifty countries where abortion is totally or almost totally banned: there are no exceptions for rape, incest, grave risk to the woman’s physical health (let alone mental health) or serious fetal defect, even fatal ones. While the legislation includes suicide as a risk, a woman who claims suicidality must be approved by a panel consisting of two psychiatrists and an Ob/Gyn, who must find unanimously in her favor (if rejected, she can appeal to a fresh panel).
Yet, perhaps surprisingly, when I visited Dublin in March, the pro-choice activists I interviewed were cautiously hopeful.
“The church has deep, entrenched power,” Katie Gillum, a filmmaker and co-convener of the Abortion Rights Campaign, told me when we met for coffee at a small cafe near Ha’penny Bridge, “but that doesn’t match the level of respect or faith among the people.” (My Tom Friedman–esque encounters with taxi drivers bore that out—four out of four of these chatty middle-aged gentlemen had left the church.) Ireland is changing fast, she pointed out: people are better educated than a few decades ago, and far more prosperous, urban and cosmopolitan. Indeed, on my way to our meeting, I passed a number of shop and restaurant windows with signs that read We Are #TeamPanti—a reference to Rory O’Neill, who performs in drag as Panti Bliss, and whose stirring speech from the stage of the Abbey Theatre attacking homophobia has made him a household name. (Ireland is due to vote on marriage equality next year, and prospects look good.) Another marker of change: in 1980, only 5 percent of Irish babies were born out of wedlock; by 2006, it was 33 percent.