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Category Archives: Abortion

Happy St Brigid’s Day – Ireland’s first abortionist

[This post originally appeared on the Choice Ireland blogspot]

Ireland’s only female patron saint, Brigid of Kildare, celebrates her feast day today, February 1st. A date that is traditionally the first day of spring, and chosen presumably because of the associations St Brigid has with fertility. She was a conglomeration of the pre-Christian goddesses that preceded her – a Celtic figure appropriated by the Church to boost pagan conversion. She was subsequently ousted in favour of the patriarchal figure of St Patrick and the impossible virgin-mother Mary.

While many will know that Brigid is a patron of healing, fertility and learning, the Church are not so quick to tell us she was in fact Ireland’s first recorded abortionist. In 650 AD a biographer of Brigid, Cogitosus, told the story of a young woman who had broken her vow of chastity and fell pregnant as a result. The young woman went to see Brigid, who took care of the problem:

Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the fetus to disappear without coming to birth, and without pain.

Today, of course, Brigid would be excommunicated for this ‘miracle’, which explains why this particular biographical sketch does not appear in any of the annals of history sanctioned by the Church. It is well documented in detail in the original writings of Cogitosus and yet it conveniently remains absent from modern translations. In the 7th century, Brigid performed an abortion on a young woman. This was perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the Church then and her ability to ’cause the fetus to disappear’ was considered nothing short of a miracle. If she lived today, Pope Benedict XVI would tell us that she was ‘co-operating in evil’. How times change.

Current Church teaching on this is a manifestation of patriarchy. Just as ‘Saint Brigid’ is an embodiment of goddesses past, the story of her kindness in helping another woman reflects what women have been doing for each other since time began – privately, and with love and consideration. A woman’s autonomy over her own life and body should not be crushed in order to achieve a moral or religious goal. This is something that Brigid herself acknowledged, and the Church would do well to remember – before labelling those who support the modern equivalent to the actions Brigid took as the ‘gravest injustice’. It is time to take the rosaries away from ovaries and today remember just who St Brigid was – Ireland’s first abortionist.


On pregnant women and disabled children, in a society that cares for neither

For as long as I can remember, women have been warned to adjust our behaviour – before and during pregnancy (as if there was no third option) – to keep us from having disabled children. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t get pregnant after 40. Take folic acid. The need to prevent the birth of disabled children has become such a societal imperative that women have found themselves harassed for having a glass of wine while pregnant, refused service, criminalised, and even sterilised to achieve this goal. The message that underlies all this is clearly one of the undesirability of disability (as well, of course, of it being the woman’s fault).

Obviously there’s a difference between trying to prevent disability in an otherwise healthy pregnancy, and terminating the pregnancy you actually have because of a disability. But that difference isn’t captured by many of the arguments we’re hearing from the anti-repeal side, which talk about birth rates for children with Down Syndrome in Iceland and solemnly warn about a future with no disabled children, in language appropriating the Holocaust. Their stats about Iceland are wrong, as we know, but what if they were right – and what if the reason they were right was not because of high abortion rates where DS was detected, but because of health or lifestyle changes that helped diminish the incidence of DS pregnancies in the first place? Would they be out protesting folic acid suppliers for their role in the genocide of disabled children?

Of course they wouldn’t, and this most of all is what bothers me about the use of children with Down Syndrome in anti-abortion campaigns. It’s a sort of fetishisation of disability, something they would otherwise find deeply undesirable, something they would actually put women in prison to prevent. I’m aware of course that people with disabilities have their own – non-homogeneous – views about their disabilities (no doubt deeply influenced by the barriers society places in front of them, something anti-choicers show little concern about) but that’s not the place where the anti-repeal leaders are coming from. Especially when you know they’d be the first to criticise women for not doing pregnancy right.

Damned if we do have disabled children, damned if we don’t. Almost as if it’s not really about the children at all.


With thanks to Danielle and Beth

Abortion on demand and without apology

Pro-choicers: does the above sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you need to learn your fucking history. This was a slogan of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a movement that succeeded in greatly broadening access to abortion for women in the US and UK.

Sadly, it seems that the legacy of these older feminists’ activism has indeed been forgotten in Ireland. These days, when you hear a pro-choice activist speak the words “abortion on demand”, most of the time it’s for the purpose of denying that this is our objective at all. Even worse, the slogan has been actively disparaged by the Irish pro-choice movement as if it was a slur dreamed up by the Iona press office, with people who really ought to know better describing it as an “awful” phrase, as “stupid”, as “nonsense”.

To which I have to ask: if we aren’t fighting for abortion on demand, what is our fight all about?

The meaning of “on demand” isn’t particularly complicated or controversial, at least in any other context. The Oxford definition is “as soon as or whenever required“. Cambridge Dictionary has it as “at any time that someone wants or needs something“. Collins states “as soon as requested“.  Other dictionaries may use slightly different wording, but they’re all expressing one or both of two simple concepts: unconditional access, and access without delay.

This is, of course, precisely what abortion rights campaigners are seeking – and contrary to what some have suggested, it’s also precisely what is meant by those who say they don’t support “abortion on demand”. They mean they want to preserve a system in which women must get permission before being allowed an abortion, if indeed we’re allowed at all. They don’t object to abortion on demand because they think it will mean abortion hen parties; they object because they think access should be controlled and limited to what they consider “deserving” cases.

Some pro-choice objections to the slogan seem to think it conjures images of women doing a Veruca Salt outside the abortion clinic. This is simply confusing different meanings of the word “demand”. Demand for abortion no more implies demanding abortions than “the demand for” anything else necessarily implies people pounding their fists until they get it. It’s a little icky to conceptualise abortion as an economic service, but technically it is – prior to the 14th Amendment, this was a key element of the fight for the right to distribute abortion information – and in that respect it’s subject to “demand” in the same way as any other good or service. NBD, again.

The other argument I hear against the phrase is that it would have negative connotations (the hen party abortions) with that fence-sitting public we’re trying to win over. Well, sorry, but who was it that allowed those connotations to develop, if not a pro-choice movement constantly responding to the phrase by insisting that oh heavens no we’re not calling for something called abortion on demand?

To be clear (let’s see how many people miss this point), I’m not suggesting that the Repeal campaign should adopt “abortion on demand” as a slogan. A slogan is a tactic, not a principle, and as long as we’re campaigning for what abortion on demand actually is I don’t really care what we call it. But there’s a difference between not adopting a slogan, and the kind of defensive disassociation from it that the Repeal movement has engaged in. Not alone is the latter grossly ahistorical, and disrespectful to the women who went before us; it also puts us on the back foot while diverting from a real discussion about abortion accessibility in a post-repeal Ireland.

Let’s try this. Instead of going all defensive every time we hear the slogan, what if we use it as an opportunity to make our argument for unconditional access? To challenge those who wield it as a weapon to declare which women they would exclude from the right to abortion, what measures they would put in place to filter out the “undeserving” cases, how they would enforce those measures and any violation of them? This would be a far more constructive response, and would also have the advantage of not handing them a microvictory by shifting into denial mode every time they say it.

But if you must continue to object to the phrase, for god’s sake do it in a way that doesn’t insult the legacy of past generations of activists. Their struggle for abortion on demand was not awful or stupid or nonsense. It paved the way for where we are today – on the cusp of liberalising one of the Global North’s last black spots for reproductive rights – and though we need not follow their exact footsteps, we owe them at least the courtesy of acknowledging the path they took.


#coponcomrades Revisited: The IT Women’s Podcast

Feminist Ire’s Stephanie Lord and Sinéad Redmond, along with Niamh McDonald and her son Tom, join Kathy Sheridan to discuss the origins of Cop On Comrades, how men can support the feminist struggle, and activism in the social media age.

Pregnant Child Detained in Mental Institution For Asking For An Abortion

To access a life saving abortion in Ireland requires 3 medical professionals (two psychiatrists and one obstetrician) to agree that the woman is at risk of taking her own life. As the recent case of a young girl  shows it only takes one psychiatrist however to get sectioned for wanting an abortion in Ireland.

The girl was legally classed as a child and her identity has understandably been withheld so we know nothing more about her other than that she had an unwanted pregnancy and that when she sought an abortion from her healthcare professionals she was of the understanding that she was being taken to Dublin for the procedure. However unbeknownst to her the consultant psychiatrist had given evidence at a hearing to detain her under the Mental Health Act.

“The consultant psychiatrist was of the opinion that while the child was at risk of self harm and suicide as a result of the pregnancy, this could be managed by treatment and that termination of the pregnancy was not the solution for all of the child’s problems at that stage.”

How frightening it must have been for her to find herself in a mental hospital after travelling to Dublin expecting an abortion. We are told it was “days” later that another hearing was held that resulted in her discharge from the mental hospital. During this time her court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) had employed another consultant psychiatrist to access her and on the basis of their evidence the girl was released from the institution. She spent unnecessary “days” in a mental institution for the “crime” of nothing more than wanting an abortion.

I’ve heard numerous reports of suicidal people trying to access mental health units in Irish hospitals who have been sent away. In future I’ll suggest to those of them who are capable of getting pregnant to say they’re pregnant and want an abortion, as that seems to be a sure way to get sectioned.

This case raises a number of questions. How is it that it only took one psychiatrist to have the girl sectioned? Why was the PLDP act not enacted for this pregnant, suicidal child? How can the public be assured that the personal beliefs of medical professionals won’t interfere with them being able to access the healthcare they need? Did Government Ministers know of the case at the time?

Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) spokesperson Linda Kavanagh said:

“Looking at the report, it’s hard not to think that the psychiatrist in this case essentially used the Mental Health Act as a tool to force a child into continuing an unwanted pregnancy because of their own personal beliefs. It is clear we need some process which ensures medical professionals with such conscientious objections cannot block timely health care in critical cases.”

This is the latest case in a long line of women and girls who have been failed by the state. Ms X was another suicidal child prevented from accessing an abortion in 1992 and Ms Y a teenage rape victim likewise led to believe she would be given an abortion and instead detained against her will. Ireland has a disgraceful history stretching back to the Magdalene Laundries of locking up pregnant women.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is supposed to “protect” women who are at risk of taking their own lives, not used as a tool to lock women who want abortions up.

The Irish Government are allowing this human rights abuse to happen on their watch, leaving a trail of abused and sometimes dead women, girls and children behind them.

Rally to Repeal is on Saturday 17th in Dublin. If you can’t go please contact your local T.Ds and ask them to urgently implement the findings of the Citizens Assembly.

You can sign an UPLIFT petition here:

*I’d like to acknowledge the work of the Child Law Project. We would know nothing of this case if it wasn’t for their work. Since 2012 they have been able to report to the public on child care proceedings in the courts, they aim to report on 10% of cases.

Laying the groundwork with young children to talk to them about choice

I’m sharing this for any other parents of younger children who might find it useful. My 4 year old is OBSESSED with pregnancy at the moment, has been for a good while. Discussions on how to talk to your children about abortion come up a lot in Parents for Choice.  I haven’t done that in detail yet with her though I have mentioned once or twice that sometimes people don’t want to stay pregnant.

Photo 2 pages of a children's book called What Makes a Baby, one page is the cover and the other is an inside spread illustration of embryo and foetal development at different stages.

What Makes a Baby children’s book

BUT what I am doing is being very careful in the language I use about pregnancy. I don’t tell her people have “a baby in their tummy”, we talk about people having baby seeds that are growing into babies. When they’ve finished growing into a baby they’re ready to be born. This book is great for a basic explanation of conception that suits all kinds of families (definitely not the case for the vast majority of pregnancy books which are obsessed with married straight white couples) but where it falls down for me is talking about a 5 week embryo as a baby, so I do some editorial reading with Ailbhe and talk about these as baby seeds until the 38 week one which is a baby. It works really well and makes sense to her, we’re growing a sunflower from a seed in our windowsill at the moment. She demanded her daddy read it to her the other day while I was at work and informed him they were all baby seeds up until the 38 week one!

I’m doing this because I don’t want to be trying to explain to a seven year old who’s asking me questions about abortion that actually a 7 week embryo or whatever it is isn’t actually a baby in someone’s tummy as I’ve been telling her all along and so that it won’t strike her as something as immediately shocking as I think it otherwise might. I’m posting in case it might help others in the same situation.

Sinn Féin and abortion: time to choose a side

Posted on

Note: most of this was written on an iPad Mini on an airplane, so please excuse lack of hyperlinks and fadas.


It is more than a decade ago, and Dublin Sinn Féin are holding a full members’ meeting to discuss party development. Gerry Adams has travelled from Belfast to address the meeting. After he speaks, the members are invited to share their views on what could be done to increase party membership in the capital. A young North Inner City activist puts up her hand, nervously, and somehow finds the courage to say that the party has got to get its head around the abortion issue, or at some point it will find itself alienating the very demographic it wants to attract: passionate young people seeking fundamental change in society.

Gerry Adams replies that he disagrees, and that he doesn’t think this is a problem Sinn Féin needs to concern itself with. After all, he says, we have the most progressive abortion policy of any party in Ireland. And the young activist doesn’t argue, because the fact is, he’s right – at this point in time, Sinn Féin’s “exceptional circumstances only” policy actually is as good as it gets in Irish politics. Labour’s, believe it or not, is even worse. Oh, sure, there are genuinely pro-choice parties amongst the far left, but the far left aren’t really a factor right now; only the Socialist Party have a seat in the Dáil and their lone TD, Joe Higgins, hasn’t even mentioned abortion as far as anyone can remember. (In the 2007 election, Higgins will lose his seat and Ireland will be left without a single pro-choice party in its parliament.) The Workers’ Party have no TDs anymore and anyway, with a North Inner City representative linked to Youth Defence, they have problems of their own on the issue. And the subject itself is still so taboo in Irish society, there isn’t even really much debate about it; realistically, no one hopes to see more than legislation for the X case any time soon. So while Sinn Féin may be rather transparently trying to play both sides, the truth is, their fence-sitting policy is probably costing them more votes from the “never, never, never” crowd.

It’s now 2017, and how things have changed! That young activist – me, if you hadn’t guessed – is now politically unaligned (and needless to say, not so young anymore). Labour are now officially pro-choice, as are the Workers Party (who still have no TDs, but are far more active in Dublin these days). The Socialist Party are now Solidarity, and hold two Dail seats; People Before Profit and the Independents for Change are also giving pro-choice voters a strong parliamentary voice. You can’t throw a rock in Dublin city centre without hitting someone in a Repeal jumper; and though no one thinks the Dail will accept the Citizens Assembly recommendation for no restrictions on abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, even the fact that 100 randomly selected Irish people could come up with that recommendation is a sign of how far Ireland has moved.

Sinn Fein, however, are still rooted to the same position they were over a decade ago, and in fact two or three decades ago: calling for abortion to remain generally illegal with exceptions. So anachronistic does this now sound that when their spokesperson Louise O’Reilly responded to the Citizens Assembly vote by reiterating party policy, her statement was met by disbelief and anger among pro-choice supporters all over social media – many of whom had misinterpreted Sinn Fein’s call for repeal as a call for meaningful change. (And no, any change won’t be meaningful if it still leaves more than 90% of abortions illegal, and forces those women entitled to a legal abortion to either prove it, or just keep going to England like they always have.)

Now in fairness the party can’t just change policies on a whim; the exceptional circumstances policy must remain until an Ard Fheis votes to overturn it. Critics and cynics are right that the party leadership can usually get such a vote when they want one but that formality is, nonetheless, constitutionally required. And party spokespersons are constitutionally bound to adhere to that policy whether or not they personally agree with it (and I’m inclined to suspect Louise O’Reilly doesn’t, though I’ve never met her). [ETA: Judging by her Twitter response to this article, it seems I was far too generous to her. Well, at least now we know.]

But it does mean the party has a serious decision to make. And it can’t just keep doing what it did all the years I was involved, and respond to every attempt to change party policy at an Ard Fheis by trotting out a female Ard Chomhairle member with impeccable feminist credentials to persuade delegates that party unity would be best preserved by retaining its middle-of-the-road position. Because frankly, it no longer is a middle-of-the-road position. The hardline, no-repeal, no-exceptions stance that formerly represented the conservative side of the debate has now been relegated to the outer fringes where it belongs (just like in the US where, you might recall, Republican candidates supporting Irish style abortion laws were condemned as extremists even by other anti-choice Republicans). It’s no longer a question of will there be a referendum but when, and the real issue that remains is how restrictive – or how liberal – the replacement regime will be. If Sinn Féin sticks to their current policy they will find themselves on the right of this debate along with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and you can bet that they will struggle to convince today’s young activists to join them.

Of course, there are many people in Ireland – and not just among the far left – who think that that’s exactly where Sinn Fein belong, exactly where they always intended to be. Fianna Fáil light, just waiting to go into coalition and shed all their remaining leftist pretences. I can’t speak for the leadership, but I can certainly say that is not where the activists who I called comrades wanted to see them. I have no doubt that those who remain in the party are saying the same things internally that I’m saying here – and hopefully this time, the leadership will listen. Because the excuse I was given all those years ago just doesn’t cut it anymore, and I don’t think there’s an excuse that will. Ireland has changed, abortion politics have changed and it’s simply no longer credible for a party to present itself as a radical or even merely progressive alternative to the establishment parties, while siding with the most conservative of those parties on an issue of such fundamental importance to young people today. My prediction at that meeting may have been a bit premature, but tiocfaidh an lá. Sinn Féin cannot sit on the fence anymore because there is no fence anymore. The fence is gone, and they will have to choose one side or the other.

Over to you, comrades.