“Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing … with intent to procure the miscarriage … shall be liable . . . to penal servitude for life.”
I hear a longing sigh from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Surely, those were the days.
The words, from the Offences Against the Person Act, which became law in the United Kingdom in 1861, were written when a woman’s reproductive choices were controlled by men.
Its core anti-abortion provisions remained law in Ireland until 2018, when abortion became legal by popular vote. The Irish experience with abortion is worth telling in Wyoming in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Wyoming’s conservative politicians now have latitude to ban abortion. A trigger law is in place from the 2022 legislative session. It is likely to be invoked soon. Twelve months from now we will know how far Wyoming legislators will go to control women’s reproductive health.
The story of abortion in Ireland, and how it became legal, is well documented. Ireland resembles Wyoming in several ways. Both have legacies of conservatism, strong rural identities and emigration of young residents. Both are invested in narratives about who they are. In Wyoming we have the Code of the West, and the Equality State. In Ireland it is the Island of Saints and Scholars.
I was born in Ireland. For most of my childhood and young adulthood, divorce and contraception were illegal. The right to abortion lacked legal foundation until a referendum in 2018 overturned a constitutional ban established 35 years earlier. Access to surgical and pharmaceutical termination in Ireland remains imperfect. Yet it is now legal for Irish women to end their pregnancies during the first three months of gestation.
1983 and a constitutional ban on abortion
For decades after winning independence in 1922, the Irish Republic struggled with the sort of society it wished to be. The Catholic Church helped make that decision for it. The church closely monitored the country’s moral tone. It established what the Christian right in the United States now reaches for: cultural hegemony. It is difficult in a piece like this to convey the mores of a theocratic society, as Ireland was for 50 years after independence. Divorce, contraception, and abortion were illegal. The educational and hospital systems were controlled by the church. Books and films were censored. Education on sexual matters was minimal. Sex, even marital sex, was dirty.
Irish politicians sang praises to the country’s exemplary morals. They contrasted them with those of “pagan England,” that sinful, immoral, permissive place. The stigma of abortion was so strong that the topic was off limits, even in private conversation.
In 1981 a small group of conservative organizations decided to lock in an abortion ban by amending the Irish constitution. They understood the international significance of Roe v. Wade and feared incremental growth of Ireland’s women’s movement. The Irish Catholic Doctors Guild established an anti-abortion coalition with support from conservative groups like Opus Dei and the Knights of Columbanus. The campaign was well funded. Pro-life advocates had access to conservative politicians and leadership of the medical and legal professions. The coalition persuaded both major conservative political parties to draft language. The final version read as follows:
“The 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 medical risks of giving a fetus legal rights equal to those of its female incubator were known at the time. They were ignored. As noted in a letter to the Irish Times, it was comparable to equating an acorn with an oak tree. The measure passed overwhelmingly in a national vote, setting the ban on abortion in constitutional concrete.
Subsequent referenda refined the scope of the ban, allowing Irish citizens to seek abortion abroad and accepting their right to information on the subject. In 2013, a highly restrictive law came into force that clarified the circumstances under which life-saving abortion could be procured. As with the recent Roe v Wade decision, it seemed as though conservatives had set the scene for a permanent abortion ban.
2018 and the end of a constitutional ban on abortion
Five years later, in May 2018, the constitutional ban was rejected in a national referendum. The strength of the pro-choice vote surprised many observers. Another surprise was that it reflected a national consensus, not an urban-rural divide. Of 26 counties in the Republic, only one — rural Donegal — supported the 1983 ban. The strongest vote for female autonomy came from voters aged 18 to 24. A remarkable 87.6% of that cohort supported repeal.
What happened here? There had been an augury three years earlier. Another vote to amend the Irish constitution, this time to legalize same-sex marriage, passed overwhelmingly (63% for, 37% against). As with the 2018 abortion decision, support for marriage equality was strongest among the young.
In the 35 years between 1983 and 2018 there was a slow evolution of Irish public opinion about a woman’s right to choose. Stories in the media and in parliament gravitated to cases where the ban caused legal entanglements, and illness and death among women seeking abortion. The public learned about the legal and medical travails of Sheila Hodgers, Michelle Harte, a 14-year-old girl named X, Savita Halappanavar, three Irish women identified as A, B, and C and Miss D. The reality of how the ban played out in women’s lives made it clear that, unless pregnant women were granted more rights than their fetuses, the result would continue to be a mess.
Simultaneously, a succession of scandals came to light about the Catholic Church. They included stories about the ruined lives of pregnant single women consigned to the Magdalene Laundries and a network of church-run mother and child homes. As Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny reflected in 2017, “we took their babies and gifted them, sold them, trafficked them, starved them, neglected them, or denied them to the point of their disappearance from our hearts, our sight, our country and … from life itself.” Meditations like this challenged cherished canards about saints and scholars, the sanctity of children’s lives, and holy Christian Ireland.
Yet the single most powerful factor may have been women speaking publicly to their experience with abortion. In the past, abortion was discussed in legal and theological terms. The immortal soul, just like fetal personhood in the U.S., was often the trump card. In the lead-up to the 2018 vote, many Irish women talked about their abortions to family members and close friends, and on the web. They spoke about raising the money, the flight to England, the cheap hotels, the termination, the lonely trip home, the oppression of silence. Here is one. They were extraordinary acts of personal courage.
When bad things are good
I wonder whether Justice Alito and his ideological allies have unknowingly done us a favor by overreaching. For 50 years we relied on one interpretation of the U.S. Constitution so that women could exercise their reproductive rights. Now that decision passes to legislators in individual states. There is little doubt about how it will play in Wyoming. Around Laramie I see large signs for one conservative candidate and the slogan Keep Wyoming Free. It is time we made it so, and for something more sentient than an AR-15. In the interim, while it remains legal for WyoFile to post it and for you to read it, here is a link to the safe use of abortifacient medication.