The Irish Approach to Reproductive Rights: Centering Personal Narrative

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At a time when Roe v. Wade is deeply imperiled in the United States and reactionary conservatism is growing across Europe, Ireland offers a different path forward.  In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote.  This year, the country voted by an overwhelming margin–66% to 33%–to legalize abortion.  This is not to say that Ireland is immune from the problems which have plagued other Western democracies.  It, too, has had to confront the uncertainty of global relations, the growing tensions over immigration, the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and the increasing incursion of social media into the electoral process.  Yet, in Ireland, these pressures have led to an expansion rather than a recall of human rights.  So what accounts for this differential Irish response?

From the outside, Ireland’s evolution into a global human rights leader is surprising.  Only two decades ago, Ireland was seen as “an economic basket case and [a] Catholic theocracy.” Condoms and other contraceptives were not legalized for sale without prescription until 1985.  Even more strikingly, divorce was not legalized until 1995, in a narrowly won referendum that split the electorate with 50.28% in favor and 49.79% against.  The easiest explanation for these changes, and the one most often pointed to, is the recent spate of Catholic church scandals and the subsequent Irish disillusionment with religious moral authority.  While many countries have been touched by Catholic abuse scandals, the Irish experience is uniquely pervasive, and singularly lodged in the deeply personal narratives of Irish citizens.  For centuries, the fusion of church and state led to the creation of an interlocking system of schools, group homes, and so-called “Magdalene Laundries” that operated in place of a formal or secular social safety net.  Throughout the 2000s, the Irish government produced several reports, beginning with the infamous Ryan Report, which detailed the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse suffered by up to 90% of children housed in publicly funded, religiously run schools.  These investigations continued with the Ferns Report, which documented similar abuses throughout Southeast Ireland in 2005, and the Murphy Report, which revealed the systematic cover-up of over 300 pedophilia cases over a period of more than thirty years in the Archdiocese of Dublin.  Taken all together, these reports led the government to devise redress and reform schemes costing billions of euros.

These shocking revelations had a catastrophic effect on Irish religious life.  When Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, he was greeted by an adoring crowd of over 1.2 million worshippers.  When Pope Francis visited Dublin in early 2018, fewer than 200,000 turned out to Phoenix Park.  Irish Mass attendance has plummeted from 80% at the time of John Paul II’s visit to 30% today.  However, many countries have endured religious scandals without emerging with a renewed commitment to human rights or healthcare access.  One could just as easily imagine cynicism and apathy winning out.  The true key to the puzzle lies in the way Ireland addressed these crises of faith.

The answer may be found in Ireland’s oldest and most well-known export: storytelling.  Ireland is home to a strong and celebrated literary tradition, and the national ethos elevates personal narrative as a way of knowing.  The reports commissioned by the Irish government did not rely solely on statistics.  They included detailed personal accounts from hundreds of survivors.  The formal Ryan Report led with a quote by novelist and survivor Paddy Doyle: “Nothing about us, without us.”  It was largely the direct testimony of survivors that swayed the nation and ultimately shaped the response to the abuse crisis.

The voices of Irish women played a key role in exposing a second set of church scandals.  Before the legalization of any form of contraception or abortion, Ireland dealt with the “problem” of unwed mothers through a set of institutions known as the Magdalene Laundries.  These for-profit businesses were run by Catholic nuns.  “Fallen” women (a class which included single mothers, prostitutes, and rape victims, among others) were committed to the laundries by either their families or the state.  Unable to leave, these women became an unpaid labor force and worked long hours under harsh conditions.  They faced an exceptionally high mortality rate, and at one of the laundries a mass unmarked grave containing the bodies of 155 women was recently uncovered.  The children of these “fallen” women were taken from their mothers and either hastily and illegally adopted or put under the care of nuns.  Under the care of the Church, many children died early deaths from malnutrition and disease.  In 2017, a local historian in County Galway uncovered another mass grave containing the bodies of 800 infants and toddlers buried in septic tanks outside of a group home run by nuns.  All told, over 10,000 women passed through the Magdalene Laundries, and the last such laundry did not close until 1996.  Significantly, the Irish news media focused on the stories of individual women and children. Papers showed photos of women returning to the site of their abuse to pay tribute to their fallen sisters and told stories of adults trying desperately to find the mothers they had been separated from decades before.

As the Catholic abuse scandals unfolded, a series of highly personal cases were simultaneously challenging the validity of the country’s harsh anti-abortion laws.  The blanket Irish ban on abortion was enshrined in the Eighth Amendment to the constitution, which outlawed abortion even in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality, or non-life-threatening risk to the health of the mother.  Change came gradually, spurred progressively by each new story that captured the national imagination.  The first arose as “The X Case” in 1992.  “X” was a 14-year-old rape victim whom the High Court sought to enjoin from leaving the country to seek an abortion.  The Supreme Court overturned the injunction on the grounds that X’s life was at risk after she made repeated threats of suicide. The case created such a stir that it led directly to the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution (which prevents the state from limiting freedom of travel) and the Fourteenth Amendment (which prohibits limitations on the right to disseminate information about international abortion services).  Another case made the news in 2012 when Savita Halappanar, a married dentist in her early thirties, was admitted to a Dublin hospital in the midst of a miscarriage.  Doctors refused to remove the fetal tissue because a fetal heartbeat was still present, and as a result Savita died of blood poisoning.  Finally, a 2016 case made Amanda Mellet a “household name” in Ireland after she sued the government for the distress she experienced while traveling to England for an abortion.  Her child had a fatal fetal abnormality and was certain to either die in the womb or within days of being delivered.  Both Amanda and her husband dearly wanted the child and were devastated at the loss.  After an exhausting trip to England, they were unable to bring their daughter’s ashes back home with them, and instead were forced to ship the remains by courier two weeks later.  All of these details became a part of the national dialogue.  In each instance, literary flourishes and poignant details were included in news reports and political arguments.  The Irish people talked about the distraught and suicidal young X; about Sativa the dentist; about Amanda, the mother separated from her daughter’s ashes.  These narratives impelled legislative action, ultimately culminating in the referendum which legalized abortion.

In the lead-up to the referendum vote, the Irish electorate was faced with a critical question: how could individual voices be heard amidst the unregulated political advertisements, misinformation campaigns, and bots of the digital age?  As in the 2016 American presidential election, foreign money and advertising were pouring into the country.  These forces threatened to drown out the voices of Irish citizens.  A volunteer organization called the Transparent Referendum Initiative formed to crowdsource data and track online advertising activity.  In response, Facebook made information about advertisers temporarily available and took steps to limit foreign political interventions.  Google blocked all foreign referendum-related advertisements through AdWords.  Another group of Irish volunteers created Repeal Shield, a tool which allowed Twitter users to block bot accounts in an effort to maintain safe public spaces for women’s testimony.  These efforts were hugely successful. In the end, a poll by the Irish national broadcaster RTE found that 43% of Irish voters relied on women’s individual stories when making their decision.

Ireland’s political transformation shows that, even in a noisy world, the story of a life has the power to shape a nation.  There may be lessons to be learned by advocates in the United States who seek to resist a dissolution of abortion rights.  Activists will need to look beyond traditional sources of national identity, be they religious or constitutional.  The future of reproductive healthcare access may well hinge on our willingness and ability to highlight the personal stories of women.


Fiona Collins is a first year student at Harvard Law School and an Online Content Editor for the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender.