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Abortion in Modern Ireland

Georgina Laragy, Catherine Conlon, Jane Ohlmeyer, Ivana Bacik, William Binchy

‘How was abortion understood and treated in the Irish past?’

In the wake of International Women’s Day and as debates around the Eighth Amendment continue, speakers at a public discussion at Trinity College Dublin on March 13th explored the historical, legal and policy approaches to abortion in modern Ireland.

As part of the Trinity Long Room Hub’s Behind the Headlines forum, the panel included experts from Trinity’s School of Law, School of Social Work and Social Policy and School of Histories and Humanities.

According to Dr Georgina Laragy, Assistant Professor in Public History and Cultural Heritage at Trinity College Dublin, ‘the study of abortion by Irish historians has been very limited until very recently.’

‘Abortion was criminalised in statute law in the 19th century and therefore conducted in secret, making it difficult for historians to recover’, said Dr Laragy, who also explained the Common Law positions around abortion which would have existed previous to this.

‘Along with infanticide, abortion was one of two of the oldest and most wide-ranging forms of population control. Although both were condemned by Christianity almost from its outset, both were present in most, if not all Christian nations’.

Dr Catherine Conlon of the School of Social Work and Social Policy spoke of the study of ‘crisis pregnancy’ commissioned by the Irish government following the X case in 1992. The study, of which Dr Conlon was involved, conducted interviews with 100 Irish women in Britain seeking abortion. The authors of the report found ‘that there are social, relational and moral dimensions to the decisions women take in seeking abortion’.

Abortion in Modern Ireland‘They [the women] asked how well they were equipped to attend to the responsibilities of caring for a child, emotionally, socially and economically. They referred to messages they encountered relentlessly regarding what are the best conditions to rear a child, and these seemed much at odds with the conditions under which they found themselves pregnant’.

Professor Ivana Bacik of the School of Law, and Senator of the University of Dublin, was a former president of Trinity College Dublin Students' Union in 1989, when she was threatened with imprisonment following legal action taken by the pro-life group, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), for providing information on access to abortion services.

Speaking at the public forum, she said: ‘Since 1983, the Eighth Amendment has cast a serious blight over my generation of women, too young to have voted in 1983, but whose daughters are now growing up under its chill’.

‘By equating the lives of ‘the mother’ and ‘the unborn’, this Amendment portrays women merely as vessels. It has not prevented one crisis pregnancy. But it has compounded the crisis of many pregnancies, particularly when the journey to seek abortion abroad is particularly difficult: for young women, women in poverty, asylum seekers’.

Professor William Binchy, Adjunct Professor in the School of Law and a practicing barrister, emphasised that the Eighth Amendment is based on the recognition of the equal worth and dignity of every human being at all stages of their life. ‘Unborn children are no less human beings than children who have been born’, he said.

‘They have a human right not to have their lives intentionally terminated. We do not have a right to choose to take another human being's life, even one as small and dependent as an unborn girl or boy. If abortion did not involve the taking of the life of a human being, who could oppose it? But it does, and this is what makes the matter so important to every caring person’.

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Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | aoife.king@tcd.ie | 01 896 3895