A content warning… more feelings content than gory content, but nonetheless: We’re talking about abortion and Ireland today. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. People shouldn’t have to fight so hard to make decisions for their own bodies. An unborn fetus should not have the same legal status as an adult woman. But we’re honoring Elizabeth’s book, The Sentimental State: How Women-Led Reform Built the American Welfare State, with this series about women, activism, and reform. Elizabeth tells the history of American women, Black and white, who took the anxieties and ideals of the Progressive era and mobilized them to exact political change. Reading Elizabeth’s book reveals a lot about the welfare state today, but also, I think, is a kind of roadmap for collective action. For Irish women, and all people with uteruses, unwanted pregnancies left one with few choices until it was finally decriminalized in 2018. Two-thousand-and-eighteen. Barely six years ago. Today we’re looking at 100 years of Irish history, inclusive of both the north and south. And most of that history, and most of this episode, is painful. But from that pain came people, mostly women, taking care of each other and fighting for change. And from that collective action came reform. Today, women in both Northern Ireland and the Republic can legally obtain an abortion up to twelve weeks in their own country. Is it perfect? No, of course not. As Elizabeth’s book reminds us, reform never is. But it’s leaps and bounds better than it was. For our listeners in Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and 18 other US states, this episode will hit too close to home. But I hope it’s also a reminder that collective action works. We can have something, and lose it, and then get it back. We just need to fight for each other. So chin up. We can do this together.

Transcript for “Came home in our droves for you”: Abortion in Ireland

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Averill: A content warning… more feelings content than gory content, but nonetheless: We’re talking about abortion and Ireland today. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. People shouldn’t have to fight so hard to make decisions for their own bodies. An unborn fetus should not have the same legal status as an adult woman. But we’re honoring Elizabeth’s book, The Sentimental State: How Women-Led Reform Built the American Welfare State, with this series about women, activism, and reform. Elizabeth tells the history of American women, Black and white, who took the anxieties and ideals of the Progressive era and mobilized them to exact political change. Reading Elizabeth’s book reveals a lot about the welfare state today, but also, I think, is a kind of roadmap for collective action. For Irish women, and all people with uteruses, unwanted pregnancies left one with few choices until it was finally decriminalized in 2018. Two-thousand-and-eighteen. Barely six years ago. Today we’re looking at 100 years of Irish history, inclusive of both the north and south. And most of that history, and most of this episode, is painful. But from that pain came people, mostly women, taking care of each other and fighting for change. And from that collective action came reform. Today, women in both Northern Ireland and the Republic can legally obtain an abortion up to twelve weeks in their own country. Is it perfect? No, of course not. As Elizabeth’s book reminds us, reform never is. But it’s leaps and bounds better than it was. For our listeners in Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and 18 other US states, this episode will hit too close to home. But I hope it’s also a reminder that collective action works. We can have something, and lose it, and then get it back. We just need to fight for each other. So chin up. We can do this together.

I’m Averill Earls

I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Elizabeth: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lisa, Karl, Karen, Hanna, Jessica, Maria, Denise, Edward, Lauren, Colin, and Susan! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Averill: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of other historians and scholars. Of course Elizabeth’s book, The Sentimental State, inspired all the episodes in this series. I picked this topic for a lot of obvious reasons – I am a historian of Irish sexuality, this is a particularly prescient topic right now both in Ireland and in the US, and getting caught up on the latest histories of Irish women’s sexuality is useful to me as a teacher and scholar. I also agreed to review a new book on Northern Irish abortion, and reading for this episode gave me a great foundation to approach that task. So I am thankful to the editors and authors of that collection, particularly Anne Rossiter, Mara Clark, and Breedagh Huges. Lindsay Earner-Byrne and Diane Urquhart’s The Irish Abortion Journey is an essential overview of the history of abortion, bodily autonomy, and fertility in Ireland, both north and south. They make the really compelling case, which I repeat here, that we cannot understand the abortion histories of those two states without one another. And of course major historians of pregnancy and abortion in Ireland – like Cara Delay, Leanne McCormick, Sandra MacAvoy, Ciara Breathnach, and Margaret McCurtain – have made the field what it is today. Check out The Irish Abortion Journey to learn more, or Cara Delay’s great essays on mid-century abortion in Ireland at Nursing Clio!

Elizabeth: As Lindsay Earner-Byrne and Diane Urquhart demonstrate handily in The Irish Abortion Journey, you can’t really understand abortion in the Republic of Ireland without abortion in Northern Ireland, and vice versa – and you can’t really understand the history of abortion in either without England.[1] In 1803, two years after England implemented direct rule of Ireland, the British parliament passed the Ellenborough Act. Abortion had been illegal since the 13th century in England, but the 1803 Act made it illegal to perform or cause an abortion after “quickening,” with those guilty subject to the death penalty. As a reminder, “quickening” was the term used by pregnant people and doctors alike to track the moment when a pregnant person felt their baby flutter or move inside them. That, by standards of the era, was the start of life. As Leanne McCormick notes, most women well into the 20th century didn’t think of themselves as pregnant before the quickening, and so methods that brought on their periods were absolutely normal.[2] In 1837, the Ellenborough Act was amended to remove the distinction between before and after quickening. Proving that an abortion took place before the quickening was hard, but not impossible by the 1830s.

Averill: Developments in 19th-century medicine and, particularly, anatomical science shifted human understanding of reproduction. Though not popular yet, there were doctors, religious leaders, and, obviously, politicians, who argued that “life” began at conception, and technologies were developing rapidly enough in the nineteenth century that the moment of conception was becoming easier to identify. That said, throughout the nineteenth century, especially in Ireland, birth and women’s health care was largely overseen by midwives and nurses.[3] Hospitals were scarce, and handywoman or mná cabhartha (m-na cawer-tah, helping woman) functioned as nurse and midwife for home-based deliveries. As the historian Ciara Breathnach (Bran-nock) has argued, folklore evidence from rural areas suggests “that female practitioners dominated Irish traditional medicine” well into the twentieth century.[4] Those same women would have helped relieve women of unwanted pregnancies. With the increase in the number of maternity hospitals and social expectations that women receive gynecological and obstetric care in hospitals – from predominantly male doctors – those traditional pathways of maternal care were disrupted and then destroyed. Women were at the mercy of the paternalist medical establishment, for better or worse.

Elizabeth: The nineteenth century was also a period of exploding alternative medical models. Homeopathy, osteopathic and chiropractic manipulation, and early pharmaceutical experiments produced all kinds of ‘solutions’ for health issues. Throughout the late Victorian period and through the early twentieth century, various ‘companies’ sold pills and potions that promised to “restore blocked menses” and help married ladies “restore regularity” and correct all “disorders”.[5] Many of these “cures” for early pregnancy were dangerous. Perhaps with the health and safety of women falling to these traps, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act expanded the specificity of Britain’s anti-abortion laws, prohibiting the procurement or supply of drugs or implements for an abortion, punishable by life imprisonment.[6] All of these laws were, of course, applied to Ireland.

Averill: Fraudulent pharmacists might be arrested for selling dangerous medications through the mail, or men who harmed women and caused a miscarriage might be tried for abortion. Occasionally abortionists – people who provided those services – were arrested, usually after an abortion went wrong and she either died or had to seek medical assistance. Women were not tried for their own abortions. The Old Bailey in London, for example, only saw 113 illegal abortion cases between 1803 and 1913, and almost all were prompted by the death or serious injury of the woman who received the abortion.

Elizabeth: Interestingly, as Delay, Urquhart and Earner-Byrne note, midwives and doctors didn’t necessarily think that these laws applied to them. For as long as home birth was the more common experience of Irish women, midwives and handywomen continued to aid women to end unwanted pregnancies or to do whatever they needed to in order to protect the life of the mother. The most common solution was, according to Delay and McCormick, the use of syringes to inject hot soapy liquid or disinfectant to dislodge an early pregnancy. Lysol was the most popular, and indeed in the early 20th century was advertised as a “feminine hygiene product.”[7]

Averill: Most doctors, too, performed “therapeutic abortions” quite regularly when they deemed it medically necessary. Medical professionals established norms of therapeutic abortions when pregnancy threatened a mother’s life in the 1920s and 1930s, operating on a “good faith” ethos that shaped all of Irish medicine in that period.[8] For example, Bethel Solomons, a Jewish Irish doctor of Dublin’s Rotunda hospital, one of the primary institutions that offered maternity care in twentieth-century Dublin, counseled women with cardiac issues and tuberculosis not to marry at all, and if they married, not to get pregnant. Unlike his Catholic counterparts, he provided therapeutic abortions to such women in the first trimester of pregnancy in an effort to preserve their lives.[9] Though the official Irish Catholic stance, including among most doctors, was that abortions should never be performed, Solomons wasn’t the only one recommending or performing them in the Irish Free State. Gibbon Fitzgibbon’s 1937 Obstetrics, for example, stated unambiguously that in cases of cardiac failure in the early stages of pregnancy, it was ‘best…to terminate the pregnancy’ and the ‘termination of pregnancy may be indicated at any time on behalf of the mother, or in the last few weeks of pregnancy on behalf of the infant.”[10] Solomons was very clear to differentiate therapeutic abortion from abortion-on-demand. He would not consider economic, social, or eugenic requests to terminate pregnancies, and while hesitant to rupture doctor-patient confidentiality, he did advise students to consider calling in the police when a woman came to the hospital to treat the after effects of a poorly-done illegal abortion.[11] In many ways, then, the 1803, 1837, and 1861 laws didn’t disrupt the abortion practices in the UK or Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Elizabeth: However, after Irish independence and the partition of the island into two states, restrictions on even these common practices ramped up over the course of the twentieth century.  In many ways the habitus and ethos of Northern Ireland and the Free State/Republic were virtually indistinguishable – despite the political division of the island in 1922. Single mothers were shunned, abortions were both shameful and illegal, birth control was stigmatized, and women were expected to be chaste and pure unless married, and then dutiful wives who bore their husband children. Conservative politics were increasingly shaped in both countries by religious ideologues and ideologies. Christian nationalism controlled women’s bodies on both sides of the border.

Averill: In both Irelands, this meant that there were terrible conditions for single mothers, with wanted or unwanted babies. Many emigrated to escape the stigma of their communities. Many, when convalescing in Mother and Baby Homes run by religious orders, had their babies taken from them and sold – and they had little to no legal recourse. In some instances babies were fostered through private transactions. There were regular reports in newspapers of baby farmers (people who fostered unwanted babies for money) abusing or even killing the children in their care through neglect and/or violence. Similarly, women in Magdalene laundries toiled away for the institutions for free while their children, deprived of their parents’ care and proper nutrition, wasted away in the infant wing if they weren’t sold off first.[12]

Elizabeth: While other European countries and even the puritanical United States moved toward legalizing birth control and giving couples options to limit family size, both Irelands doubled down on their Christian nationalist and pronatalist (or at least anti-birth control) ethos. Birth control was unequivocally illegal in the Free State / Republic from 1929 until the late 1970s. Priests were even discouraged from counseling married couples on “natural family planning,” or the Knaus-Ogino method, which involved tracking a woman’s fertile and infertile periods of her menstrual cycle. Notably Knaus and Ogino were Catholic doctors who developed their recommendations in an effort to have a family limitation method that would be acceptable to Catholics. As Linsey Earner-Byrne and Diane Urquhart note, the Irish Catholic hierarchy and state made deliberate and informed decisions to privilege their invented morality systems over maternal health.[13] It didn’t matter if pregnancies threatened a woman’s life or if a family was unduly burdened by unendingly successive births. The men of the church and state decided they knew what was morally best for Irish women, and both directed and legislated to ensure women had no choices.

Averill: Birth control wasn’t illegal in Northern Ireland, but Northern Irish society was as conservative as in the south. A Marie Stopes family planning clinic opened in Belfast in 1930, but lacked community or financial support, and had to close after just 10 years, despite serving as many as 4,000 women.[14] While Earner-Byrne and Urquhart suggest that this opened the way to increased awareness and discussion of family planning options, “the subject of birth control was so fraught in Northern Ireland, that even this well-connected campaigner had to import her own supplies from Britain by mail order.”[15] Even after the National Health System was introduced to Northern Ireland in 1948, which connected even the poorest Northern Irish women to free health care, the conservative politics of the region meant that women received little counseling when faced with preventing or dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.[16]

Elizabeth: Though politically distinct, Northern Ireland certainly resembled the Free State far more than it resembled England when it came to social conservatism and moral self-righteousness. The two Irelands really only diverged in their stance on sexuality, abortion, birth control, and women quite recently – and, somewhat surprisingly, with the Republic moving toward greater liberalization first.

Averill: There were no new laws dealing with abortion in the United Kingdom until 1929, which closed a “legal loophole.”[17] The 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act made it a felony to terminate a pregnancy if the fetus was deemed able to survive outside of the womb, effectively instituting a ban on abortions after 28 weeks. The actual reasoning behind the original bill was to deal with an absence of legislation to protect the lives of infants in the process of being born. This Act was applied to Northern Ireland, but not the Free State.

Elizabeth: Abortion, like birth control, was illegal in the free state. Though, as Delay, McCormick, Earner-Byrne, and Urquhart point out, some doctors continued to perform “therapeutic abortions” and midwives continued to aid women in at-home abortions well into the 1940s. For midwives, at least, aiding women in this way was dangerous. A number of midwives and handywomen were prosecuted in the south for performing abortions, usually, as in 19th century Britain, when something went wrong. Cara Delay discovered 70 cases of illegal abortion in the court records for north and south between 1920-1940; 29% of abortion prosecutions in the south took place between 1942-44.[18] The higher incidence of abortion cases 1942-44, which generally came to the authorities’ attention when something went wrong, was likely because of the restrictions on travel during WW2, which would have forced women to resort to methods or abortion-providers that went poorly.

Averill: Leanne McCormick studied 33 abortion court cases from Northern Ireland, 1913-1967, and found similar conditions. Women aided one another in either attempting an abortion or in finding someone who could help. McCormick shares an example from one case: “Mrs. G explained how a neighbor told her how Mrs. McA was going to have a baby, and did she know anyone she could go to and said it was a “pity of her.” When Mrs. G went round to see Mrs. McA she was crying and said she was taking pills and then she told her about Mrs. MaC who was a “handy woman at helping anyone like herself who was in trouble.” Mrs. G ended up being sentenced to six months hard labor for her sympathy although she was released on bail of nineteen pounds and bound over to keep the peace for two years. As Barbara Brookes argues, it was a death that “often revealed these networks.””[19] Delay and McCormick demonstrate that there were wide informal networks of people who provided information about birth control and abortion to Irish women. A few got caught when things went wrong, but continued to operate clandestinely to meet the needs of Irish women.

people marching with hand held signs that read "Abortion Now," "Our Voice Our Choice," and "Fine Gael Protect: Embryos"
A 2012 protest in the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: While formal legalization of abortion in the UK didn’t come until the 1960s, case law started to reform practice and possibility as early as the 1930s. In Britain, a 1938 court case involving a 14-year-old rape victim introduced a major legal precedent regarding therapeutic abortion. Her father, fearing for her mental health, signed off on an abortion, and a doctor performed it. Building on the 1929 UK law that allowed for abortion to save a mother’s life, the courts found that the doctor was not only correct in his action, but that all doctors had a duty to both refuse to perform illegal abortions and to perform abortions to save the life of a mother. To refuse to perform an abortion that would save her life would make the doctor guilty of manslaughter.[20] Though the 1929 law and the 1938 court case had no legal bearing in Northern Ireland or the Free State, Earner-Byrne and Urquhart suggest that the news coverage and medico-legal discourse surrounding the case undoubtedly shaped Northern Irish practice, because therapeutic abortions increased after 1938 there. In the south, the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act and 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act suppressed information about birth control and abortion.

Averill: In 1967, Britain legalized abortion up to 28 weeks… in limited cases. Britain’s 1967 law was not based on the idea that citizens had a right to privacy, like Roe v Wade or Griswold v Connecticut, or that they had bodily autonomy and the right to make medical decisions for themselves. According to Jennifer Thompson, “Under the parameters of this legislation, terminations must be carried out with the approval of two medical professionals, who are in “good faith” that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life or health of the woman, “greater than if the pregnancy were terminated,” or that there was a risk the child would be born “seriously handicapped.”[21] As Fran Amery points out, “The law as it currently stands does not allow ‘abortion on demand’ …but rather permits abortion in certain medically controlled circumstances. In most cases this will mean that two doctors have agreed that the pregnancy represents a risk to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health. In other words, the Abortion Act 1967 assigned a paternalistic role to medical professionals in women’s reproductive decision-making.”[22]

Elizabeth: But even these narrow parameters of change were not applied to Northern Ireland. Northern Irish MPs were little involved in London Parliamentary decision-making between 1922-1973, and even after Stormont was dissolved, abortion in NI was never a topic of in-depth consideration. There are scant mentions of abortion + Northern Ireland in the parliamentary debates. In 1972, just before Stormont was dissolved due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland,  member of Parliament Mr. Parker: “asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will take steps to bring abortion law in Northern Ireland into line with that in other parts of the United Kingdom.” to which Mr. Channon replied: “No.”[23]

Averill: A decade later, MP John David Taylor: asked “the Secretary of State for Social Services what is the estimated number of women from Northern Ireland who have had to go elsewhere in the United Kingdom for abortions in each of the last 10 years.”[24] Presumably the official statistics were supplied, and the issue wasn’t raised again. Thousands of women traveled from Northern Ireland and the Republic after 1967 to seek abortions in England, usually in Liverpool. Women seeking access to legal abortion had to shoulder the cost of traveling to England, potentially staying there to go through the rigamarole of getting two doctors to sign off on their abortion; and, until 2017, they also had to pay the cost of the medical procedure itself, up to £1000. The issue of abortion in Northern Ireland wasn’t raised seriously again in Parliament for decades – abortion, and most issues, took a back seat to the Troubles; and then after the Good Friday Agreement, presumably health care of its citizens was the responsibility of Stormont, which refused to broach the issue of abortion.

Elizabeth: The legalization of abortion in Britain immediately ushered in a period of abortion travel from both Northern Ireland and the Republic. An estimated 200,000 women traveled from Ireland (north and south) to England for an abortion between 1967 and 2019; it is undoubtedly more, as many people gave false addresses, because of the shame and stigma associated with abortion throughout this period.[25]

Averill: Sex continued to be a source of conflicting emotions on both sides of the border, but particularly in the Republic. As one Irish man said, “We Irish have very peculiar ideas on the subject of sex, despite what anybody might say. Back of everybody’s mind is the notion that there is something wrong with it, something bad.” Another husband admitted his wife had to teach him about the marriage act.[26] Catholic guilt and shame around sex was further compounded with  the Pope’s Humanae Vitae [On Human Life] in 1968, which reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s unequivocal ban on the triumvirate of “abortion, contraception and divorce, linking the three issues in a moral framework that should be defended.” Many Irish people were using birth control methods – the marriage age was lower and the average family size considerably smaller in 1971 than 1911 – and likely felt blind-sided by the out-of-touch position of the Catholic Church. According to Dorine Rohan, “The reactions in Ireland to the Encyclical have been varied…Anger, sadness, astonishment, relief have been felt and expressed by every sphere of the community…many who have been practising birth control will not return to the fold.” Mary O’Rourke, a teacher and later politician and minister in several governments, noted: “I clearly remember the sense of hope not being realised.” And, as Patsy McGarry astutely observed, “it could have been so different.”[27] Despite the obvious unpopularity of the encyclical, the Irish Church persisted as an opponent to marital sex as anything other than procreative, issuing statements and pastorals between 1971 and 1978 to that effect.

Elizabeth: In the 1960s and 70s, despite continued – and really even expanded – religious opposition, birth control was recast as a civil rights issue in both north and south. That reframing was important to shifts in who had access to contraceptives and when. “Mrs. McGee”, a 27-year-old mother of four, was advised not to have any more children after suffering a stroke during her fourth pregnancy. She was charged under the 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act when she ordered birth control through the mail. Lawyer and future president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, took her case through the Irish judicial system. She lost in the High Court, but in 1974 the Supreme Court – following the lead of Griswold v Connecticut in the US – determined that married couples had the right to make decisions about their family planning.[28] Five years later, the Irish parliament legalized the sale and distribution of contraceptives to married couples. The legislation put the final decision, though, not in the hands of married couples, but in their doctors, who were charged with deciding if their reason for wanting birth control was legitimate.

Averill: In Northern Ireland, contraceptives weren’t illegal, but they were not acceptable due to social and religious opposition. But like in the south, changing attitudes of civilians put pressure on the state to adjust. In 1969, the 1967 National Health Service (Family Planning) Act was applied to Northern Ireland, giving people access to birth control via prescription no matter their marital status.[29]

Elizabeth: The 1967 abortion law in Britain was not extended to Northern Ireland because, according to the Northern Irish attorney general and leaders in the medical field, to do so would be overwhelmingly opposed by the religious forces in the country. Instead of extending “on-demand abortion” to women, Northern Ireland would continue to operate (in theory) under the precedents of case law. The 1938 Bourne case and the 1958 Regina v. Newton and Stungo case gave legal precedent to ‘therapeutic’ abortions to protect the life and health of the mother. In the latter case, the judge explained that abortions should be carried out “in good faith for the purposes of preserving the life or health of the woman, and when I say health I mean not only her physical health but also her mental health.”[30] Like birth control in the south, the decision was left to doctors, though with the threat of violating the case law if a doctor refused to perform an abortion – the 1938 and 1958 precedents would open doctors up to charges of manslaughter if a woman whose mental or physical health demanded an abortion was refused one.

Averill: The attorney general was right, in a sense; the members of the Northern Irish political parties that purported to represent their constituents’ interests were overwhelmingly against abortion. That was true between 1967 and 1973, and again after 1998. Reverend Ian Paisley, one of the biggest assholes to ever be elected to any legislative body, was a virulent homophobe misogynist who screamed about immorality and sin every chance he got. The 1930 Marie Stopes clinic, which served at least 4,000 Belfastians, closed because of lack of community financial and general support. In the patriarchal – and militant – Northern Irish communities of the 20th century, sex, birth control, and abortion were taboo. But to say that those politicians – including the politicians that dominate Northern Irish politics today, represent the majority of Northern Irish opinions would be an overstatement. As evidenced by the significant mobilization of women’s organizations, within Northern Ireland, across the entirety of Ireland, among Northern Irish in Britain, and internationally, as many – if not more – people (especially women) yearned for and then demanded change. Their politicians just didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, hear them. Northern Irish governance has been unstable since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and abortion has never really been part of the main agenda.

Elizabeth: Conditions in the south – which were worse, in some ways, for women – also opened the door for bigger change. In 1983, Ireland passed a Constitutional referendum that made abortion totally illegal, no exceptions. Thousands of women were forced to give birth to unwanted babies, or, if they were lucky and could shoulder the financial burden, they traveled to England to procure an abortion. The 1983 referendum, however, started a 30+-year conversation in the south about abortion. In that time period too many women, including teens and rape victims and women with pregnancy complications that ended their lives because they went medically untreated, suffered under Ireland’s authoritarian restrictions on women’s bodily autonomy. Those tragedies made news, and fueled the conversation, resulting in two more abortion-related referenda: one in 1992, and most recently, 2018.[31]

Averill: In April 1981, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign was launched to enshrine protection for the unborn in the Irish constitution. The campaign focused on the rights of the unborn, avoiding discussions of maternal health or married couples’ right to privacy. Few groups on the anti-amendment side raised the issue of abortion as a woman’s right. This was not least because “feminism” was named “the problem” causing the deterioration of Irish society by the Catholic church and the conservative majority. But the amendment was not universally supported. Organizations like the Irish Family Planning Association, women’s organizations, and abortion support networks opposed it. By the end of the campaign, Fianna Fail was the only political party that stood by its support for the amendment. Fine Gael and the Labour Party, while not unanimous, overwhelmingly opposed its passage.

Elizabeth: Despite opposition from politicians, women’s organizations, journalists, and even some doctors, the anti-amendment efforts failed. Even the most harrowing stories failed to turn the tide. In 1982, Shelia Hodges had cancer, and was denied treatment by Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda because cancer treatment would induce an abortion. She suffered through a painful birth, her infant died immediately, and she died a few days later in 1983. In the days before the Pro-Life Amendment went to national vote, a journalist broke the story, asking how many more necessary medical abortions would be denied under the amendment as proposed? Amendment 8 passed by a majority of 841,233 (66.9%) to 416,136 (33.10%). Only 54% of voters turned out to vote, which undoubtedly means only those most active and invested in the issue went to the polls.[32] All the fence sitters and the unsure stayed home. The Irish Gay Rights Movement split on the issue when the male members of the organization refused to stand up with their feminists/lesbians colleagues, a rift that would take years to heal – and for some, was unforgivable. Once again the independent Irish government and people demonstrated that its only interest in women was in controlling them and their bodies.

Averill: The amendment’s consequences would come to pass as the journalist who broke Hodges’ story foretold: many more women and girls died when denied life-saving medical procedures.

Elizabeth: Abortion was not fully out of reach of all Irish women. For those with the means and the time – not, like Savita Halappanavar, who died in Galway in 2012 when denied an emergency abortion – they could take the humiliating journey to England to procure a secret and shameful abortion far from family and support.

Averill: But, as Earner-Byrne and Urquhart argue, this disastrous amendment and its inevitable consequences actually forced Ireland to have the conversations about abortion that they hadn’t during the actual Pro-Life Amendment campaign. Almost yearly, reports of women and girls who died needlessly made the Irish public face the impact of the constitutional amendment on maternal health, on women and women’s lack of civil and private rights, and on Irish society more broadly. The tone of those conversations was also slowly reframed by bigger changes in Irish society. In the decades following the 8th Amendment, Irish people finally started dissociating Irish identity from the Catholic church. Maybe that break was motivated by Irish Catholic Church scandals, including clergy child sexual abuse, priests with mistresses, and the horrific conditions in the Magdalen laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. Maybe the break was made possible by the improved living of Ireland’s citizens after the economic boom of the 1990s; an impoverished Ireland needed the Church to get through the misery of a life of poverty, while a comfortable Ireland could finally question the unyielding hypocrisy of the hierarchy and its priests.

Elizabeth: In January 1987, Justice Liam Hamilton granted the Society for Protection of the Unborn Child, a central player in the PLAC group, an injunction against the only two clinics offering non-directive pregnancy counseling, including abortion information, in the Republic: the Open Door Counselling and Dublin Well Woman Centre.[33] Effectively organizations that had supplied women with referrals to abortion providers in England were shut down, and abortion networks had to go completely underground. The Women’s Right to Choose group was replaced in 1987 by the Women’s Information Network in Dublin, and continued to help women get to the abortion services they needed but more covertly. Women in Britain, mostly but not exclusively Irish or Irish-descent, were essential to the underground years of getting Irish women abortion access.

Averill: In 1992, the X Case – when an unnamed 14-year-old rape victim was stopped by the Irish government from traveling to Britain for an abortion – caused mass protests and significant challenges to the Irish prohibitions on abortion. In response, the government proposed three new referenda to the constitution. Two passed – guaranteeing Irish citizens’ right to travel freely, and freedom of information – while the third, which would have made abortion illegal even to save the life of the mother, failed. It was a small win that felt like a major victory. The Irish people voted to at the very least allow women to travel for abortions as necessary, and overwhelmingly voted not to reaffirm the idea that a fetus’s life was more valued than the person that carried it.

Elizabeth: By the 1990s, Irish women were pretty angry about how the state and Irish society had treated them for the better part of a century. Reopening the abortion tourism routes and rejection of another anti-abortion referendum were important successes.

Averill: During the 1970s it took an average of five to eight days from the first counseling session to final discharge and cost £70.13—the equivalent of £1060 today. As a Dublin-based counselor who referred women to abortion clinics in Liverpool explained in the 1970s: “The Liverpool clinic…have told us about Irish girls who get straight off the boat and ask the nearest policemen where they can get an abortion. It’s horrific. Money is often a problem but the women always get it together if they have to pawn, beg, borrow or steal.”[34]

Elizabeth: In Northern Ireland, where, again, medical abortion technically wasn’t illegal, women didn’t need to travel for a medical abortion. Public opinion in the 1990s actually favored abortion laws that protected women. A 1994 poll found that 79% favored abortion when a woman’s health was endangered; 72% for rape and incest pregnancies and 59% for severe fetal abnormality.[35] But once Northern Ireland regained a devolved government after 1998, the issue remained untouched. And, perhaps, the persistent influence of Christian nationalist ideologies explains why.

Averill: In 2012, a Marie Stopes clinic opened in Belfast. Presbyterians, Catholics, and other anti-abortion forces “united” to try to shut it down. They set up outside the clinic, protested daily, harassed and attacked people visiting the clinic, and treated it like it was an illegal den of iniquity. The clinic followed the letter of the law closely, and only provided medically-necessary abortions. But the loud and obnoxious anti-abortion forces of Belfast seemed determined that no abortions, medical, legal, or otherwise, were to take place in Ireland. When the NHS coverage for abortions was extended to Northern Ireland in 2017, the Belfast Stopes clinic closed down.[36] Women preferred to travel to have their abortions away from the harassment and public shaming apparatuses of Northern Ireland.

Elizabeth: Shifting public opinion and convincing the UK Parliament that Northern Ireland needed abortion legislation would take years of organizations like the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, the Alliance for Choice, and the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group advocating, building partnerships and friendships across borders, and aiding women in meeting their abortion needs under the restrictive regime of Northern Ireland.[37] Northern Irish politics are particularly complex – with half a dozen political parties returning significant minorities at any time, all governments have to be coalition, and few political parties, except Sinn Fein (Shin Feign) are pro-choice. In 2016, a bill to legalize abortion in cases of rape or fatal fetal conditions failed. Losses like the 2016 one, however, just fueled the anger of Irish women on all sides of the border.

Averill: While anti-abortion forces mobilized violently to maintain Northern Ireland’s status quo in 2017, and pro-choice organizations worked to change hearts and minds, the Republic made the leap that would be essential in achieving change for the entire island. For decades, but especially after Savita Halappanavar’s unnecessary death, groups like the Alliance for Choice joined together in a Campaign to Repeal the Eighth. Every year since 2012, the AFC and other groups have Marched for Choice in Dublin.[38] With paintings of Halappanavar and banners calling for voters to “Trust Women” and declaring “My Mind My Body My Choice,” they’ve been persistent in these mass demonstrations demanding rights for pregnant people. Building on the success of the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum, the Campaign to Repeal the Eighth was well-organized, targeted, and clear in its aims. They used social media well, and highlighted dozens of personal stories to connect voters to the people who needed these changes.

Elizabeth: On May 25, 2018, Ireland voted to repeal the 8th Amendment. The repealers won with a 2/3s majority. According to Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, “Not only this, but the polls revealed no gender or rural–urban divide and that the main reason people had voted for abortion reform was because of a belief in women’s right to choose. The next day the streets were full of women in tears.”[39] A local artist painted a mural of Savita Halappanavar the week of the vote. After they won, hundreds of people left Post It notes on the mural. One read “came home in our droves for you”, another echoed the sentiments of so many who voted to repeal the eighth amendment, ‘Sorry we were too late but we are here now. We didn’t forget you’, and yet another, ‘I voted for you Savita. May you rest in peace. You’ll never be forgotten along with all the other women who have suffered. All my love’.[40]

several people holding up a piece of fabric with a black and white image of Savita Halappanavnar next to a sign that reads "Vatican Republic: Catholic Church and Cowardly Politicians Killed Savita"
Savita is invoked in a pro-abortion rights protest in 2012 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Immediately after the Republic’s victory – like the day the votes were tallied – activists were calling for the North to follow suit. But Northern Ireland’s Stormont was, once again, suspended when the deeply divided multi-party system couldn’t form a majority government. So activists called for London to make the decision for them, to grant Northern Irish women the same access to abortion that the English, Scottish, and Welsh had across the Irish Sea – and that the Irish had across the border to the south. In London, the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign had been pressuring Parliament to act when it was clear the Northern Ireland Assembly was unwilling to enact legislative abortion change.

Elizabeth: Parliament actually did it. They passed an Act that would become law in Northern Ireland if Stormont couldn’t form a government by October 21, 2019. So on October 22, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 went into effect. It immediately repealed sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person law in Northern Ireland, and put “a moratorium on abortion-related criminal prosecutions” while also making it the duty of “the UK Government to introduce, by regulations, a new legal framework for abortion in Northern Ireland.”

Averill: For decades, politicians and religious leaders (who were often the same people) refused to consider the legalization of abortion in Northern Ireland. Even before the Troubles dissolved Stormont in 1973, when Britain was passing its – admittedly problematic – 1967 abortion law, Northern Irish politicians refused to see it applied in their country. Though thousands of women traveled to Britain to receive abortion services after 1967, before and after the 2017 legislation ensured their medical procedures were covered under the NHS system, Northern Irish leaders claimed – and many still claim – that it is too ‘unpopular’ or ‘divisive’ an issue for them to legislate on themselves.

Elizabeth: So, as promised, the UK Parliament passed further legislation in 2020 to extend ‘abortion on demand’ up to 12 weeks, with medical abortions available there up to 20 weeks. The latter, of course, was technically always available in Northern Ireland, by way of legal precedents from the 1930s and 1950s, but enshrining those policies in law will hopefully improve the quality of life for all Northern Irish people capable of getting pregnant.

Averill: Problematically, though, as Earner-Byrne and Urquhart point out, this imposed change has not changed and will not change the social stigma surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland. There’s still so much more work to be done, north and south. But there’s hope, too, and two pathways toward that hope: sometimes you can rally enough people to make change from the bottom up, referendum-style; and sometimes you need a federal government to step in and protect women when devolved or state governments insist on doing the wrong fucking thing. 

Your move, America.

Elizabeth: Thanks for joining us today! We invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, tiktok, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad – for all kinds of memes and historian hijinks. If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at hello@digpodcast.org – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, digpodcast.org. You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at digpodcast.org.


Fran Amery, Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: The Changing Politics of Abortion in Britain (Bristol University Press, 2020).

Cara Delay, “Kitchens and Kettles: Domestic Spaces, Ordinary Things, and Female Networks in Irish Abortion History, 1922–1949,” Journal of Women’s History 30:4 (Winter 2018) 11-34

James M. Smith, “The Politics of Sexual Knowledge: The Origins of Ireland’s Containment Culture and the Carrigan Report (1931),” Journal of the History of Sexuality 13: 2 (Apr., 2004) 208-233

Lindsay Earner-Byrne and Diane Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 1920-2018, (Palgrave Macmillian, 2019).

Jennifer Thompson, Abortion Law and Political Institutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

Leanne McCormick, ““No Sense of Wrongdoing”: Abortion in Belfast 1917–1967,” Journal of Social History, Volume 49, Number 1, Fall 2015, pp. 125-148

Fiona Bloomer and Kellie O’Dowd, “Restricted access to abortion in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland: exploring abortion tourism and barriers to legal reform,” Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16:4 (2014) 366–380.

Fiona Bloomer and Emma Campbell, Decriminalizing Abortion in Northern Ireland (Bloomsbury, 2023)

Begoña Aretxaga, Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism, and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland (Princeton University Press, 1997)

[1] Lindsay Earner-Byrne and Diane Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 1920-2018, (Palgrave Macmillian, 2019).

[2] Leanne McCormick, “‘No Sense of Wrongdoing: Abortion in Belfast 1917–1967,” Journal of Social History, Volume 49, Number 1, Fall 2015, 125-148.

[3] Delay, “Kitchens and Kettles,” 19.

[4] Ciara Breathnach, “Handywomen and Birthing in Rural Ireland, 1851–1955,” Gender and History 28, no. 1 (2016): 34-56.

[5] “Free Offer to Ladies,” The Illustrated Police News, December 24, 1910, p 15.

[6] Jennifer Thompson, Abortion Law and Political Institutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) 67.

[7] McCormick, “No Sense of Wrongdoing,” 130.

[8] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 34.

[9] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 36.

[10] Qtd in Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 36-37.

[11] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 36-38.

[12] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 14-18.

[13] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 22.

[14] McCormick, “No Sense of Wrongdoing,” 132; and Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 23.

[15] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 24.

[16] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 28.

[17] Jennifer Thompson, Abortion Law and Political Institutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) 67.

[18] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 47.

[19] McCormick, “No Sense of Wrongdoing,” 134.

[20] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 41.

[21] Thompson, Abortion Law and Political Institutions, 84.

[22] Fran Amery, Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: The Changing Politics of Abortion in Britain (Bristol University Press, 2020) 5.

[23] HC Deb 8 June 1972 vol. 838 c123

[24] HC Deb 5 March 1984 vol. 55 cc446–7W 446W

[25] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 9.

[26] Qtd. in Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 54.

[27] Qtd. in Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 54-55.

[28] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 58.

[29] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 66.

[30] Qtd. in Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 71.

[31] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 7.

[32] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 79.

[33] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 82.

[34] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 103.

[35] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 91.

[36] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 95.

[37] Ed. Fiona Bloomer and Emma Campbell, Decriminalizing Abortion in Northern Ireland (Bloomsbury, 2023) 9-50.

[38] Bloomer and Campbell, Decriminalizing Abortion in Northern Ireland, 18.

[39] Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 128.

[40] Qtd. in Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, The Irish Abortion Journey, 128.


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