ON A BITTERLY COLD EVENING this January, the south street of Dublin’s Merrion Square reverberated with the chants of over 20,000 protestors. They had rallied there facing Leinster House, where the national parliament of Ireland meets, to add their voices to an argument that has been dividing the country for decades—over a woman’s right to abortion. Buses that had been privately rented to transport pro-life activists from church parishes around the country, lined the streets. The throng held up plastic signs, distributed by organisers, which declared, “I vote pro-life,” and called on the government to “keep your pro-life promise”, thereby making it clear that the demonstrators wanted no change to Ireland’s thoroughly prohibitive abortion laws.
Abortion is illegal in the Republic of Ireland under the Offences against the Person Act (1861), a British law that remained in force after the country gained independence from the UK in 1922. In 1992, the Supreme Court of Ireland delivered a landmark ruling in the case of a suicidal 14-year-old girl known as “X”, who had become pregnant because of a rape but was denied permission to travel to the UK for a termination. The court asserted that a woman had a right to an abortion in Ireland if she faced life-threatening circumstances, including suicide. But the strong political influence of Ireland’s Catholic majority, and the Church’s dominance over other social institutions, have sustained highly conservative social policies and a forceful anti-abortion lobby; for more than 20 years, the Irish government has failed to create legislation that would permit abortion in circumstances such as X’s.
Ireland’s abortion debate shot to the headlines last November, when news broke about the death of Savita Halappanavar. The 31-year-old dentist from India was 17 weeks pregnant when she presented at Galway University Hospital, in October, with severe back pain and was told she was miscarrying. She died of septicaemia a week later, on 28 October, after having been denied a potentially life-saving medical termination, which she repeatedly requested. Doctors said their “hands were tied” due to Ireland’s strict abortion laws.