Life and Death in Ireland

O Ireland my first and only love

Where Christ and Caesar are hand and glove

— James Joyce

Ireland has a peculiar reputation. On the one hand its colonized history has lent it a prestigious place in the canon of anti colonial and revolutionary eschatology, while on the other hand clerical and patriarchal supremacy has made it famous as a laboratory of authoritarian repression. However, in recent years most militants have made their peace with Britain, greeted the Queen and taken seats at the table. At the same time the relative decline in the power of the Catholic Church resulting from secularization and the scandal and cover-up of clerical child abuse has rocked the regime of social shame and control that has been in place since the foundation of the state.

In fact, Ireland’s human rights record is deceptive. While it has the appearance of a place that guarantees gender equality many of these developments have been the result of dictats from the EU. For example, an EU directive forced the Irish state to treat men and women equally with regard to welfare in 1984 and the European Court of Human Rights ordered the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1988. Were it up to the Irish state there is  no reason to think there would have been reform on these matters. The liberalisation of Ireland over the past couple of decades is in many respects a mirage, even if the state and the courts operate far to the right of the population on many questions.

Savita Halappanavar walked into this contradiction when she presented herself at Galway’s NUI hospital on October 21st suffering from severe back pain. She was 17 weeks pregnant and in the midst of a miscarriage. After learning that the pregnancy was not viable, she asked several times for a termination but was refused,  being told by the doctor “it’s a Catholic country so we won’t terminate while the foetus is still alive.”  She died in the ICU a week after she was admitted, apparently of septicemia. In the timeline of events published widely in the Irish media and presumably provided by sources in the hospital no mention is made of the patient’s request for a termination. Instead it reports clinically, “After 24 hours of admission, antibiotics are given”…“Patient remains unwell”…“Patient continues to deteriorate” and finally, “Patient dies in the ICU”.

Savita’s exchange with the doctor seems quite barbaric in hindsight, but it is the crux of the matter. The constitutional veneration of the fetus, and the consequent qualification on the status of women, enshrines inequality at the heart of the social and legal contract. One result is the occasional human sacrifice of girls and women on the altar of political expediency and supposedly Irish ‘values’.

The right to an abortion when there is a danger to the life of the mother is actually enshrined in the Irish constitution, and has been acknowledged by the Irish Supreme Court. But there is no legislation that clarifies the circumstances under which one can be provided. The lack of any legal clarity about when a woman is entitled to an abortion has it’s roots in a moment of supreme cowardice and cynicism on the part of the Ireland’s political class. In the early 1980’s a number of right wing groups, some tied to the Catholic Church, launched a campaign to push for a referendum that would write an absolute ban on abortion into Ireland’s constitution. The campaign  against the “holocaust of the unborn” succeeded in gaining the support of the three main political parties, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Labour. With the entire political establishment in support or neutralized, and the country worn out after a two year zombie abortion holocaust campaign, the amendment was approved by the electorate.

The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution provides that “[t]he State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” The rightwing proponents of the amendment resisted the inclusion of any reference to the rights of the mother, but such was the political compromise. They regarded the outcome triumphantly in any case, and set about using it to crush what services were available to pregnant women.

Shortly after their referendum victory they began to target organizations that provided crisis pregnancy counseling and information on how to avail of abortion services in the UK. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) alongside the state’s Attorney General sought an injunction in the courts against Open Door Counselling to halt their provision of these services.  In the absence of any legislation it was left to the Irish Supreme Court to interpret the actual meaning of the amendment. The clinics argued that they had a right to expression guaranteed under the Human Rights Convention but, in 1988, the Supreme Court held that the right to freedom of expression must yield to the fetus’s constitutional “right to life”. According to the Court, the Eighth Amendment bars spoken and written information regarding the specifics of the availability of abortion outside of Ireland.   Non-directive pregnancy counseling and abortion information went underground.

In the Summer of 1989 I began a year long sabbatical as an elected student’s union officer in Trinity College Dublin. The union published a free student handbook at the beginning of each academic year that gave advice to students about college services, navigating the libraries and tutor system, cooking, sex, doing laundry, renting accommodation, drinking, living away from home, how to get around, and so on. The book also contained information regarding alternatives available to pregnant women which included keeping the child, adoption, foster care and methods for communicating with facilities in England that provide abortion services. By the time the new academic year began SPUC had taken a case against us and union leaders from several other universities, 14 individual defendants in all. After a pyrrhic victory in Dublin’s High Court, the Supreme Court issued another pious broadside and slammed us with an injunction preventing us distributing the book. The Court questioned whether abortion could even be considered a “service” given that it is “manifestly contrary” to the public morality. It asserted that just because “grossly immoral” activities may be permitted in other Member States, those activities do not necessarily fall within the sphere of Community law. Case closed.

The immediate effect of the ban on information was to force women to travel to England for abortions later in their pregnancies increasing the risks to their health. It also made it far more difficult to identify a reputable clinic or to make informed choices about cost or convenience. Magazines like Cosmopolitan stopped carrying ads for services in England fearing they were subject to the ban. Yet thousands of women continued to furtively make their journeys over. Even before the students came back at the end of the Summer we often had young women and girls showing up at the Students Union looking for help. They had seen the stories on TV or read about it in the newspaper. But we had no doubt that SPUC and their allies on the bench would shut us down completely if we persisted in open defiance, threatening the staff’s jobs. But girls and young women kept showing up as there was nowhere else to go. Activists advertised the phone number of underground referral services by scratching it into public phones boxes and with graffiti. A sympathetic politician read the number aloud in the Dail, Irelands parliament, symbolically registering it in the public record. The phone number had its own chant.

Periodically of course mad laws like these come up against hard cases and everyone gets to have a second look. So it was two years later with the infamous X case. X was a 14 year-old girl who had been raped by a school friend’s father and had become pregnant. She told her mother that she was feeling suicidal and she was brought to England to have an abortion. Her family contacted the Irish police to ask whether a fetal tissue sample could be used as evidence in a rape prosecution. On learning of a planned abortion the Attorney General sought and was granted a high Court injunction preventing the procedure being carried out. But when X was appealed to the Supreme Court there was a summersault. The X story broke over the weekend and by Monday morning thousands of people had taken to the streets to demonstrate against the state making a hostage of a suicidal child. It took two weeks for the Supreme Court to make it’s ruling by which time the clamor from the streets had grown louder. X threatened the establishment consensus that there could to be a far right veto over women’s health and reproductive rights. But something had to give. Finally the Supreme Court lifted the injunction and conceded that in fact a woman could have an abortion if there were a threat to her life, including the threat of suicide. X miscarried shortly afterwards sparing further blushes, but the legal situation had become a bog.

The X Case led to two further amendments to the constitution, one guaranteeing the right to travel abroad to avail of services and the other guaranteeing the right to information about services available elsewhere in the EU. A third amendment was rejected by voters, that one would have removed a risk of suicide as a “threat to the life” of the mother. But the damage done by the original so-called pro-life referendum could not be fully undone by adding more caveats to the constitution. The question of when the right to life  of the mother could supersede the rights of the fetus remained unresolved. And in particular the refusal of the governing class to provide legislation on the rights of the mother has allowed rightwing men, firmly ensconced on the Irish Supreme Court, to legislate from the bench.

Part of that refusal is the maintenance and promotion of a cult of guilt and shame around sex and sexuality that has been promoted by the  Catholic Church and by the state. As thousands of women gathered throughout Ireland to remember the short life of Savita Halappanavar, I was reminded of another horrible Irish death, that of Ann Lovett on the last day of January in 1984. She was 15 when she died and would have experienced puberty during the right wing campaign of the early 1980’s to achieve a constitutional ban on abortion. The campaign foregrounded pregnancy and abortion but reinforced the abiding and largely unchallenged view that sex itself was sinful and a mortal lapse outside of marriage. Unmarried pregnancy was the shameful consequence of vice.

Ann died from shock as a result of haemorrhage and exposure along with her infant son in a Marian Grotto in the town of Granard in Co. Longford. She had gone to the Grotto alone to deliver her baby. Perhaps the shrine to the Blessed Virgin was a practical choice, a quiet place close to town where she might remain undisturbed in her labours. The coroners court found that Ann had died from the fatal consequences of a hazardous delivery but there was no mention in any official report of the shame and state of fear that really killed her. She was discovered by three boys, a child dying in the rain, her dead child beside her. She was bright and talented and she had managed to conceal her pregnancy from everyone around her, even her best friends. Such ingenuity in hiding was not uncommon in cases like these. She and I were the same age.

The Head Sister of her convent school read a note at the burial. “If we’d only known that Ann was pregnant, we would have fully supported her and would have taught her how to take care of herself and her baby. But Ann made another choice.” The reality was that unmarried mothers were still punished and often outcast as a lesson to others. Most were separated from their babies and many were committed to a lifetime of indentured servitude in the Magdalene Laundries, an entirely hidden institution where ‘fallen’ girls existed in a punishing climate of slavery and penance, reminded daily of their sins through bullying, prayer, and mandatory silence. This regime persisted until the late 1990’s and interned up to 30 000 women and girls. It was a gulag into which young pregnant girls from poorer backgrounds literally disappeared,  others would end up there on the word of a priest or family member who felt they displayed a loose attitude to morality, or who they wanted to be rid of. The Irish state subsidized and reproduced this system for 75 years, it was dismantled in the 1990’s only as a result of public outcry when it was widely discussed for the first time, a function of the greater collapse in credibility of the Catholic Church.

When Savita’s doctor reported to her that “this is a Catholic country” he spoke for some very powerful forces who have maintained the system of soft terror that killed Ann Lovett 26 years ago, and countless others who have died lonely deaths at their own hand or through dysfunction or mental illness. Her husband honorably refused to participate in an internal enquiry that would have killed the story in time and with some hand wringing. Instead he is suing the Irish state in the European Court of Justice for an open and public enquiry into his wife’s death. And he is right if he suspects that she is more likely to get justice there rather than in an Irish context. Her death has reopened the abortion war, the government is again promising to legislate for X and the circumstances under which an abortion can be carried out in Ireland. They have had many chances over the last 30 years, and have failed spectacularly. Their ability to achieve an equitable and just outcome this time is a life and death question. It will be closely followed.

James Davis lives in the Bay Area. He is co-author of the new book, Catastrophism from PM Press.