How a brave few are breaking Ireland’s abortion taboo

By Joyce Fegan

There is a theory in marketing called the diffusion of innovation. It explains how, why, and at what rate new ideas spread.

The theory divides a population into five categories: The first 2.5% are the innovators, the next 13.5% are the early adopters, the following 34% are the early majority. The next 34% are the late majority, and the remaining 16% are the laggards.

At the 15% mark, when both the innovators and early adopters have embraced an innovative social concept, product or service, you have your tipping point and in comes change.

Let’s imagine, now, that legal abortion is the new idea. To start, let’s take a look at the status quo. Save for exceptional circumstances, abortion is illegal in Ireland.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, then a Fianna Fáil TD and chief whip, leaving the Dáil during the abortion referendum of 1983. Protesting outside is Mary Margaret Dunne.

A termination can only be carried out if the pregnancy poses a threat to the life of the mother, including suicidal ideation. If a woman has an abortion here for any other reason, she faces 14 years in prison.

Nowadays, terminating a pregnancy may also include taking a tablet at home that was ordered online. For example, in 2016, 1,748 people contacted Women on Web to import abortion pills to Ireland.

Like any criminal offence, it is rare that those who commit the crime openly discuss it. The resounding silence ensnares the issue in shame. It becomes taboo. This is our current status quo on abortion: Silence and stigma.

So how did we get here? On September 7, 1983, the people of Ireland voted to insert the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution. There were 2,358,651 people registered to vote and 1,265,994 went to the ballot boxes. Of those, 841,233 voted in favour of the amendment and 416,136 voted against it.

The amendment was passed and the newly-inserted Article 40.3.3 recognised the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child.

It created a constitutional ban on abortion, making it impossible for any government to legislate for abortion. To amend or change, repeal or remove, as much as a single word in a country’s constitution, the ruling government must ask its people via a referendum.

The people of Ireland didn’t ask the government of the day to hold a referendum. A group of 13 organisations, predominantly Catholic, formed the Pro Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) off their own bat, in January, 1981.

PLAC then lobbied the government to hold a referendum. For more information on this, seek out Emily O’Reilly’s (current European Ombudsman) book, Masterminds of the Right.

So, here we were, post-September 7, 1983, with a constitutional ban on abortion.

After the referendum passed, Mary Robinson, seven years before becoming President, took part in a live TV debate with barrister William Binchy about the possible implications of the amendment.

Ms Robinson stated that the term ‘unborn’ was legally ambiguous and it would lead to difficult test cases that would put women’s lives at risk. Mr Binchy argued the opposite.

“In the area of women’s health, if some crackpot were to take a case in this particular area, the court would dispose of the case with no difficulty whatsoever,” said Mr Binchy.

Ms Robinson was then asked if she believed there would be test cases.

“I must say, I don’t like the use of words like crackpot,” she said.

“We’re talking about very serious issues and I, together with a lot of lawyers, a majority of lawyers in this country, raised the serious difficulties that are implicit in the ambiguous and complex wording of this amendment.

What we’re faced with, now, is a legal section in the constitution and all I can do, conscientiously and fairly and honestly, as a lawyer, is to try to assess the implications of it. It is very ambiguous. Even the concept of the word‘unborn’ is not known to lawyers, therefore it must be determined.

Unfortunately, the former president was right and there were test cases.

In February, 1992, we had The State v Miss X. Miss X was a suicidal 14-year-old girl, who had become pregnant as a result of rape. The attorney general of the day, Harry Whelehan, had been granted an interim injunction by the High Court, restraining her from seeking an abortion in the UK. Article 40.3.3 was the justification for the injunction.

The case sparked an outcry, so much so that the people of Ireland were told that any discussion of it would amount to contempt of court.

The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court and in March, 1992, the earlier decision was set aside, allowing the girl to travel and a ruling was made that the threat of suicide was grounds for an abortion. It is understood that the girl miscarried.

Far earlier, back in 1983, there was another case. However, it never saw the legal light of day. This time, it was a young woman named Sheila Hodgers, from Drogheda, Co Louth. She was married to Brendan Hodgers and

together they had two children.

Ms Hodgers had previously had a lump removed from her breast and was on a follow-up treatment of anti-cancer drugs. The contraceptive pill was not to be taken in tandem with the drugs.

Ms Hodgers then became pregnant with her third child.

Now, back in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, in Drogheda, she was taken off the anti-cancer drugs, as they would kill the developing foetus. One month later, she developed severe back pain and a reactivated tumour was suspected.

She was not allowed any treatment, because of her pregnancy, due to an ethical code called the Bishop’s Contract, drawn up between the hospital management and the Catholic hierarchy.

Mr Hodgers told an Irish Times journalist that he could hear his wife “screaming” in “absolute agony” from the front door of the hospital. She was in a ward on the fourth floor.

In the early hours of St Patrick’s Day, in 1983, she delivered a perfectly formed baby girl. However, the child stopped breathing and died as she emerged from her mother’s womb. Sheila died two days later.

However, born just after 1983, these are the not the stories I heard growing up in Ireland. Instead, I was exposed to graphic images outside College Green. You were told that “abortion was not a form of contraception”.

Just do not have sex. Simple. However, from the onset of puberty, you lived in fear of getting pregnant. What would you do? Who would you tell? And none of these messages came from inside my home; instead, they came from the society around me.

So, just how did we get to this tipping point, about to vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment and legislate for abortion?

First, there were the innovators, that 2.5% of men and women, like Mary Robinson, who called out the legally unworkable amendment.

Then, there were the early adopters, that 13.5% of people who have marched for change and created dialogue, through clothing and badges and murals. Not to mention those who made private tragedies public testimonies.

And then came the Citizen’s Assembly, where, over the course of several weekends, medical, legal, and ethics experts gave presentations about the issue of abortion. Then, there was the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, which went through a similar process of education and informed dialogue.

And, now, it’s up to the rest of us — the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards. With rights come responsibility — so, if you vote, whatever way you may vote, you are responsible for informing yourself.

The Oireachtas Committee’s 36-page report is a good place to start.


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