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Irish Stew

Where abortion and national identity collide

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Wide-eyed, heavily lipsticked, with a delicate jeweled bindi between her eyebrows and an almost joyous expression on her face, Savita Halappanavar has been staring out from the front pages of Irish newspapers, week after week, for almost half a year now. The 31-year-old Indian dentist, four months pregnant, was rushed to University Hospital in Galway in the middle of a miscarriage last October. She begged for an abortion, reportedly, and was haughtily informed by a doctor that she couldn’t have one. “This is a Catholic country!” he allegedly said. She died of septicemia a few days later. 

A loud reminder in Dublin, July 2011

A loud reminder in Dublin, July 2011


People who tell the story of Savita Halappanavar often don’t agree on much. Her doctors have been accused of dogmatism by those who favor legalized abortion and of incompetence by those who do not. That Ireland is among the very safest countries in which to have a baby—6 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, versus 21 in the United States, according to the World Health Organization—argues against both explanations. In February, excerpts from a government inquiry were leaked to the press. They made no mention at all of that “Catholic country” taunt. But by then, the Savita case, as it is always called, had unleashed a battle over abortion laws that was tearing the country, and its coalition government, to pieces.

Abortion is forbidden under the constitution of traditionally Catholic Ireland. Aside from tiny Malta, it is the last country in the European Union with such a ban. Certain of Ireland’s leaders are embarrassed by that. Top lawyers, many of them trained in American law schools, have kept Irish and EU courts under a barrage of litigation for two decades, in hopes of shaking loose a liberal regime of abortion rights. Over the same period, the EU has claimed an ever-larger share of what used to be the sovereignty of the Irish Republic, in exchange for generous-looking subsidies. Almost all the leaders of the major parties are pushing to bring Ireland’s laws into line with those of “our European partners,” in the face of resistance from the Irish public. 

There is now an American-style pro-choice establishment (with its litigation, its keep-your-hands-off-my-body agitation, and its coalitions-of-convenience built out of trade unions, antiracists, and others you wouldn’t suspect of caring about abortion rights) facing off against an American-style pro-life establishment (with its marches, its robocalls, and its ultrasound posters). Those who want abortion have the zeitgeist on their side, those who don’t want it have the law. By the time the Savita case happened, the battle lines between two camps were sharply drawn. And at that point, Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose Fine Gael party had made an election promise just a year before that it would not legislate for broader abortion rights, switched sides.

Catholic Zionists

Campaigners for abortion rights like to describe Ireland’s restrictive abortion regime as dating from an 1861 law, the Offences Against the Person Act. That law is indeed still on the books. To invoke it makes opponents of abortion sound like fusty, obscurantist, retrograde lackeys of colonialism. But Ireland’s abortion regime is just as much a product of the country’s modernization—of a series of decisions made with broad democratic legitimacy between the 1930s and the 1980s. 

At the end of the revolt against Britain almost a century ago, the church was the only major national institution free (or freeable) from the taint of colonialism. To compare it to the Polish church under communism in the 1980s would not be out of place. The Irish made the church the bedrock of their new state. They invoked the Trinity in the preamble to the constitution of 1937. They granted the church a partnership—or a stranglehold, according to your view—on education and health care, along with a voice in censoring books and public entertainments. This ancient and ill-fated people, nearly exterminated in the previous century and scattered by migration, a people that seemed to provoke admiration of its lyricism and fear of its criminality wherever it traveled, created a state suited to the needs of an underdog citizenry. With its resurrected ancient language made compulsory in schools and a “law of return” permitting the grandchildren of the Irish diaspora to claim citizenship with no questions asked, the political culture of the early Irish Republic bore a striking resemblance to Zionism. It was not a theocracy, exactly, but Irish Catholicism—as both an identity and a belief system—became a large part of what the state was about. 

This was not a country where new, feminist understandings of family life could easily take root. According to Article 41.2 of the constitution: 

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