Áine Ní Mhainnín: The Power of Women’s Voices – the Pro-Choice Movement in Ireland


Savita Halappanavar was 31 years old. Originally from India, she moved to the west of Ireland to be with her husband, Praveen. On 21st October 2012, she and Praveen arrived at University College Hospital Galway. Savita was 17 weeks pregnant and suffering from back pain. Told she was miscarrying but that there was still a foetal heartbeat, the couple requested a termination. In fact, as Savita’s health deteriorated, they requested a termination three times over the following days. They were refused each time, once given the reason that Ireland was a ‘Catholic country’. Finally, after Savita had spent 2 ½ days in agony, the foetal heartbeat stopped and the foetus was removed. Savita died on 28 October 2012. Her death was recorded as a result of severe sepsis, E. coli in the bloodstream and a miscarriage at 17 weeks.

Having returned from Savita’s funeral in India, Praveen recounted her story to the Irish Times. It was published on 14th November and immediately went viral. Ireland’s position on abortion, allowing a woman to die through refusing her a termination, was receiving global attention. That evening, within only a few hours of the story being posted, several hundred attended a vigil outside the Dáil (Irish parliament). Although Savita’s death shocked and horrified, that vigil and the subsequent protests and rallies did not occur in a bubble, but have been the focal point of a change of mood over the last year or so in relation to a woman’s right to choose. Ireland’s barbaric position came about through the success of anti-choice lobby groups in blurring the distinction between Church and State, resulting in a culture of silence, stigmatisation, and shame. But some women are fighting back.


The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act prohibited the procurement of a miscarriage within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In the 1980s, the anti-choice lobby began to argue that the legislation allowed for abortion in certain circumstances. Yet not one of the Republic’s major parties stood up to SPUC (the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) and their ilk. Instead, they supported a referendum on a constitutional ban on abortion, which passed with an overwhelming majority in 1983. The 8th Amendment inserted the ‘right to life of the unborn’ into the Irish constitution, though it generously noted the equal right to life of the mother.

The then-government had been warned by officials and a succession of Attorney Generals about the dangers and conflicts the amendment could bring about. That warning came to pass in 1992. A 14-year old girl was raped by a family friend but, having been informed that her parents intended to bring her to England for a termination, the Attorney General took out an injunction preventing her from leaving the country. Miss X, as she was known, became suicidal. In the midst of massive protests for and against, the injunction was appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the 8th Amendment meant an abortion could occur if there was a ‘real and substantial risk’ to the life of the mother. But no government of any political make-up brought in legislation on the X-case, leaving women and doctors in a precarious position for over 20 years.

The lack of legislation on the X-case interpretation of the 8th Amendment has resulted in confusion over when a situation moves from risking the health to risking the life of a woman. It has left doctors in limbo and women without a full understanding of their rights. There is no recognition of the various reasons a woman might choose an abortion. In one case, a woman pregnant with twins discovered that one had died in the womb while the other had fatal foetal abnormalities. Having travelled to England for a termination, she took a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2005. The woman, known as D, argued that the ban on abortion meant doctors could not properly counsel women on their options. The ECHR declared the case inadmissible because it should have gone through the Irish courts system first.

Yet since then, the ECHR has ruled that the situation in Ireland is so unclear as to leave women unsure if they can access a legal, life-saving operation. This case is referred to as A, B, and C versus Ireland. A was unmarried, living in poverty, already had four children (all in foster care), and had an alcohol addiction when she discovered she was pregnant. B became pregnant when the morning-after pill failed. C became unintentionally pregnant while in remission from cancer. Each planned their abortion in secrecy: A borrowed money from a lender, B was lent a friend’s credit card so her family would not know, and C researched the impact of pregnancy on her health online and alone. All the women suffered complications on their return from Britain, including severe pain, nausea, blood clots, and infection. In 2010, the ECHR ruled in favour of C, explaining that Ireland’s failure to implement the existing constitutional right to lawful abortion violated C’s human rights.

The Irish government convened an expert group to determine how to implement the ruling. But by 21st October last year, the report was already overdue. That was the day Savita and Praveen Halappanavar arrived at University College Hospital Galway. The subsequent inquests and reports into Savita’s death have not only reinforced Praveen’s account of her story, but have highlighted the consequences of a negligence in bringing about X-case legislation: medical staff explained that they refused a life-saving abortion over the ‘legal position’ and a midwife said that in mentioning the Catholic Church she was only trying to explain how it was ‘pressing the buttons’. At the inquest, the former master of the National Maternity Hospital announced that if Savita had been given a termination earlier ‘it is highly likely she would not have died’.

At the end of April 2013 the Fine Gael-Labour coalition announced the heads of the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill. It had taken a suicidal 14-year-old for an Irish court to affirm a woman’s right to life, numerous court cases for government to realise the issue would not go away, and a death to finally understand the consequences of inaction. Yet even within the very limited situations in which a termination may be permitted, the bill creates unbelievable obstacles. In keeping with the 8th Amendment to the constitution, the bill allows for an abortion if the life of a woman is at risk. It imposes a 14-year jail sentence for a doctor who performs or a woman who undergoes an illegal abortion (down from life imprisonment in the 1861 Act). If the threat to a woman’s life is based on her having suicidal thoughts, there will need to be three unanimous consultants to approve the abortion, and another three if it is appealed.

This bill is only the smallest of steps to codify the rights a woman is already supposed to have, yet, within hours of its announcement, Youth Defence were outside the Dáil, Fine Gael backbenchers were in hysterics, and the bishops were organising vigils and threatening excommunication. Their fundamentalism and hysteria go a long way in worrying politicians about their seats, and women about their lives.


Irish women have abortions: between 1980 and 2011, 150000 women gave Irish addresses at abortion clinics in England and Wales. This is a typical rate. It shows that prohibition does not stop women having abortions – it exports them, it outsources them. If a woman travels to England she cannot access an abortion on the NHS, but must go to a private clinic. Alongside the loneliness of undergoing a medical procedure in another country, cases such as A, B, and C demonstrate that women who travel from Ireland miss out on the aftercare which would be provided to a woman resident in Britain.

However, in many cases the financial pressures of an abortion are simply too much, resulting in two rules: one for those who can pay and another for those who can’t. The longer it takes to raise the money for the abortion the higher the expense. The situation for migrant women is even more complicated as the woman must decide between continuing a pregnancy she does not want or risk travelling and being refused re-entry to the country.

The response of women to their inability to legally access abortion is shown in the 1,200 packets of abortion pills seized by the Gardaí, the Irish police force, in 2009. While the financial burden of ‘abortion kits’ again highlights the economic as well as the legal problems facing women, getting the pills over the internet is not without risks. The Irish Family Planning Agency has stated that in the first three months of 2013, one clinic met three women facing complications from amateur abortions at home.

In a 2013 qualitative psychology study with crisis pregnancy counsellors in Ireland (unpublished as of May 2013), Bébhinn Farrell discovered that ‘counsellors believe that restrictions on abortion do not deter women from seeking abortion, but that the barriers and obstacles in place impact negatively on women’s emotional response to their experience’. The counsellors believed that ‘any negative feelings women present with are not usually around the actual abortion, but other issues in their life may relate to their abortion, such as relationship problems, lack of support, and feelings of being ostracised’. Jan O’Sullivan’s experience after she travelled for an abortion in England aged 18 echoes the study’s findings. She explains that ‘usually I didn’t tell people, I had people react very badly, I had people I had been dating find out and break up with me. I had people I had been friends with shun me’.

The ‘Irish solution’ – inaction and refusing to stand up to the likes of SPUC and their reincarnation Youth Defence – reduces the person who lives in the country and happens to have a womb to the position of a walking incubator. While the 8th Amendment supposedly allows for the equality of the woman and the foetus, the reaction to Savita’s miscarriage shows that to be a lie. A woman’s heartbeat ceases to matter once she is pregnant. In effect, her rights slide out of that group of basic human necessities thought of as human rights and become an optional allowance.

The Fightback

Youth Defence and their supporters feed off sexism. They make huge efforts to control the conversation on abortion through vigils outside clinics, occasional rallies heading to the Dáil, and regular stalls on Irish streets. They are rarely without their horrific posters or the spurious statistics peddled by the Life Institute or the Iona Institute. Despite their claims to care for the lives ‘ruined by abortion’, the aim of Youth Defence is to control how women use their own bodies.

There have always been people confronting Youth Defence. But as interest and organisation has flared around moments of tragedy, questioning their stance generally peters out in the absence of profound change. In recent years, campaigns have been small and often focused on opposing particular acts by anti-choice campaigners, such as responding to the ‘Rally for Life’ with a ‘Rally for Real Life’ which promoted family care and abortion services. It is in this light that the activities of the past year are so exciting.

In the early summer of 2012, notices began to appear on Dublin’s buses, trams, and billboards, and soon spread across the country. Each showed either a woman or an ultrasound scan torn in half, with the warning beside reading ‘abortion tears her life apart – there’s always a better answer’. In substance, they were not a huge departure from Youth Defence’s campaigns of previous years, which had shown fictitious women regretting their abortions. But somewhere in the mix of graphic images and obvious lies, a nerve snapped and the complaints began.

The Advertising Standards Authority declared itself unable to act. But by now the anti-choice occupation of public space was being challenged. Billboards at train stations were improved to read ‘Propaganda tears her life apart’ and reflected the debate occurring online, on radio call-in shows and in newspapers which emphasised the lies being propagated. Through Twitter and Facebook people could show their contempt for the posters and it was through these means that it was possible to gather, share, and support the attempts to counter the lies.

During those weeks it was the anti-choice organisations which were, for once, on the back foot. By attacking the basis of the strangle-hold that the anti-choice side had over the discussion, a space was created which actively fought silence and, through that, the demonization of women. This is significant because, as Bébhinn Farrell discovered, counsellors believe that ‘propaganda is confusing women about their emotions, making them question whether they should in fact feel guilt and shame instead of moving forward with their lives’. At the protests, chants such as ‘get your rosaries off my ovaries’ were obviously inherited from previous campaigns. But it was difficult to stand outside the Dáil and not be impacted by the sheer force of sincerity in the shouts of ‘my body, my choice’ and ‘no more shame’.

If Youth Defence posters started a movement against stigma then the reportage of the death of Savita Halappanavar was a movement of frustration and disgust. The speed with which the story spread, and how quickly women and men were mobilised to stand outside the Dáil, is a sign of the revulsion it provoked. It was the vigilance of those shouting ‘never again’ which forced the women and men in the Dáil to agree that in the next few months, there would be legislation on the X-case, legislation which has finally been published.

The fightback is happening because women are talking. While some well-established groups have taken a definite stance on the debate, others have been set up in recent months around the initiative of women speaking out. The importance of groups like Galway Pro-Choice or the Abortion Rights Campaign is not just that they are a voice to the government or the media, but that they have allowed for women to come together and speak in their own words about abortion, campaigning, and raising children during the recession. For Jan O’Sullivan it has been very significant: ‘Being at marches with thousands of pro-choice people, being at public meetings, street demos and even handing out leaflets to people, has made me see there are so many more pro-choice people than I had thought and those who condemn women like me are a minority, and I stand a little taller now’.

This is not a new political movement, and nor is it a new type of politics, but it is a rejection of the cruelty and barbarity of isolation and, in the climate of cuts and austerity, that is all the more necessary. And it’s not restricted to the island of Ireland. The Abortion Support Network was set up in 2010 to help Irish women access abortion services in Britain. The ASN helps women organise the process – assisting with payment, contacting clinics, and providing a source of comfort and support in the midst of a woman’s isolation from the state and society. In what they do and how that do it, these groups of women counter the barbarity of Youth Defence.

If these groups of women coming together to make noise about governmental silence and anti-choice lies are creating space for the changing of ideas, they are not taking a slow approach or waiting much longer for other people to change their minds. As the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act was never spread to Northern Ireland, the reality for women there has been little different to the Republic. The first private clinic offering abortion (within 9 weeks) opened only in October 2012. But seeing the members of the Northern Assembly managing to overcome sectarian division long enough to try dragging back the clock, 100 activists made a statement directly confronting the rumours, hushed tones, and outright lies. They announced that they had ‘either taken the abortion pill or helped women to procure the abortion pill in order to cause an abortion here in Northern Ireland’. Following a similar line, activists in the Republic have started publically handing out details of how to access abortion pills.

It is the courage, the defiance, and the solidarity of these pro-choice campaigners which is changing the direction of the debate. The Irish response has always clustered around tragedies, but if the campaigns can continue with any strength, then this generation should be the last to walk by a lying poster on their campus, the last to take the early morning flight to Manchester, and the last to stand outside the gates of the Dáil shouting ‘never again’. •

Áine Ní Mhainnín graduated from the National University of Ireland, Galway in 2011. She is now studying for an M.St. in Global and Imperial History at St. Catherine’s College. She is a member of the Workers’ Party of Ireland.

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