Between morality and reality
By John Corry
Orla McFadden is a 24-year-old single mother with a 3-year-old son named Eoin. She represents a large section of Irish society when she says, "Abortion is really wrong. I mean, it's murder. Looking at Eoin now, it gives me the chills just to think that he wouldn't be here because I went for an abortion. There is no way I could ever support abortion," she said.
In Ireland, the stigma associated with single parenthood is largely absent, but the issue of abortion continues to raise strong emotions.
Abortion has been a criminal offense in Ireland since 1861, punishable by a 12-year prison sentence. An Irish solution to the abortion issue has developed with women traveling to Britain to avail of abortions. It is estimated that in 2001, some 6,000 Irish women traveled to the U.K. for this purpose. Prior to 1992, it was also illegal to give out any information about abortion facilities in other countries. Clinics were banned from giving counseling and goverment censorship was used to prohibit health books and sections of British newspapers and magazines that contained information on where to get an abortion.
Everything changed in 1992, when the government tried to stop a 14-year-old suicidal rape victim known as Ms. X from leaving the county to obtain an abortion abroad. There was a huge public outcry and large-scale protests at the government's proposal, and they were forced to relent. The ban on abortion was removed for abortions where there was a substantial risk to the life of the pregnant woman, with the threat of suicide included as such a risk.
Emma Martin (not her real name), 26, a friend of my sister, traveled to the U.K. in 1999 for an abortion and found the most distressing thing was "the fact I had to leave home, to travel to England alone and with no support."
Recently, the Irish government again addressed this issue by proposing a constitutional referendum to restrict the already limited instances where a woman can avail of an abortion.
In my opinion, the referendum proposal represented a regressive step and I was pleased that it was narrowly defeated (50.42 percent vs. 49.58 percent) on March 7. If someone is faced with the real prospect of needing to have an abortion, then the Irish state should not be hypocritical enough to criminalize that person while allowing them to travel abroad for the same purpose.
Tony O'Brien of the Irish Family Planning Association called the government's defeat "a victory for common sense." But Emma is more critical: "Nothing's changed from this referendum. It's good that the Irish people rejected it, but I'd still have to travel abroad for an abortion and who can see legal abortions in Ireland in the next 10 years? Not me, anyway."
It may seem incredible that in Ireland, until the 1980s, both contraception and divorce were illegal in the eyes of the state and immoral in the eyes of the Catholic Church. In 1995 divorce in Ireland finally became legal. Although everyone can accept the notion that the Catholic Church would forbid divorce, it was harder to stomach that Irish legislation also prevented anyone from divorcing or re-marrying. This led to generations of unhappy marriages lingering on long after they had, in reality, finished. The solution was the Irish-style divorce, where a couple remained living together but leading entirely separate lives.
Our current Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern is separated from his wife and lives openly with his partner Celia Larkin. It is clear that his marriage is over but in true Irish style he will not get a divorce for religious reasons.
Outlawing contraception was widely seen as a very poor joke because products were freely available by mail-order or by simply traveling to Northern Ireland, where they could be purchased legally. My college took the brave step of installing a condom vending machine in the early 1980s. The machine was regularly removed by the police, and with equal regularity, was re-installed by the student's union. I attended the college for four years but never once saw the machine in place.
Until 1985, condoms could only be purchased at a pharmacy by persons over the age of 18 in possession of a doctor's prescription. Several pharmacists were prosecuted and fined for selling condoms to individuals without prescriptions. Thankfully, this situation has changed and vending machines, pharmacies and even supermarkets readily offer a wide range of contraceptives.
Turning a blind eye to moral issues is no longer acceptable in Irish society and considerable progress has been made in the last two decades. Ireland's status as a moral curiosity in a developed Europe is changing in a positive way. I am pleased to say that in a recent return visit to my college this year for an alumni dinner, I finally saw a condom vending machine installed, and my wife is pleased to threaten divorce whenever I forget to do my share of housework.
Shukan ST: March 22, 2002
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