Across dozens of religious and cultural values, the practice of abortion remains a highly contentious issue. Some beliefs, such as that of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam believe in the protection of the mother and permit abortion during extenuating circumstances. Others, like Catholicism, forbid it completely, regardless of the situation. These beliefs, as well as other factors, have immense influence over the policies that countries institute regarding abortion.
For example, China possesses freely available abortions, as a result of the One Child Policy. Russia reportedly leads the world in the total number of abortions performed each year, which could be a result of a primarily secular nation that has little to no influence from religious beliefs. This similar reasoning allows former Soviet Union countries, such as Latvia, to support freely available abortions. However, countries with heavy influence from the Roman Catholic church, such as Ireland, Spain, El Salvador, and Mexico, generally promote stricter rules about abortion and even ban it completely.
In a historic move, an Irish referendum voted to repeal the eighth amendment, which designated the rights of an unborn child as equal to that of its mother. Instituted in 1983, the amendment strengthened existing anti-abortion laws, while also reinforcing the pro-life sentiment throughout the country. While its existent presented a point of contention for many, the ultimate turning point of this cruel institution came with a woman named Savita Halappanavar.
At seventeen weeks pregnant, Savita Halappanavar faced intense pain, indicating a miscarriage that would not allow the baby to arrive. She and her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, asked the medical team to perform a termination three times but were denied each of those times. Dr. Katherine Astbury allegedly told them that the hospital could not perform the abortion because “this is a Catholic country” and “there was no threat to Mrs. Halappanavar’s life”. Ultimately, Savita died from sepsis (an infection of the blood) and, thus, became the public face of the pro-choice movement to repeal the eighth amendment.
However, while Savita represents an important moment in the movement, it is necessary to note the cases that led up to her great tragedy. In 1992, a fourteen-year-old girl, raped by her neighbor, was forbidden from leaving Ireland to have an abortion. This so-called X Case shifted the public image, as many found the idea of detaining a fourteen year old barbaric. This case ultimately reversed the legality of stopping women from traveling to get abortions, which led to around 5000 women going abroad annually. But, having the option to travel overseas provides little in terms of a solution for these women. Many Irish women don’t have the means to leave the country, while others, like Savita, may have conditions that do not permit immediate travel.
As public opinion shifted in favor of abolishing the eighth amendment, it became a contentious, confusing civil rights issue that threatened to define the current generation. It transformed from a passion project to a national debate, as the cruelty of the amendment itself was heavily criticized by the United Nations and Amnesty International. And, thus, the referendum was set for Friday, May 25th and ultimately ended with the repeal favored.
This represents an almost debilitating shift in public opinion from a country that has always been strongly Catholic. But, Ireland’s gradual shift towards liberalism doesn’t stop at abortion. In 1992, it decriminalized homosexuality. In 1993, it removed restrictions on the sale of contraceptives. In 1996, it legalized divorce. In 2015, it passed a gender identity law favorable to transgender rights activists. In a country ruled morally by the Catholic Church, the lower house of Irish parliament voted to bar Catholic elementary schools from discriminating in favor of children who have been baptized or originate from Catholic families. This helps promote a secular education, as the country itself goes through a similar change. In comparison to the 93 percent Catholic in 1926, today’s Irish population is just 78.3 percent.
For a country shaped and defined by its religion, this strikes a huge change in the laws, as well as the attitude of the people in it. Parents may no longer feel a sense of urgency to baptize their children just to get them into a better school, and nondenominational schools may get the funding they deserve.
In addition, this October provides Irish citizens the opportunity to vote on whether Article 40, the blasphemy clause, and the provision that suggests a women’s place is in the home should be stripped from the constitution. Though these have little relevance in modern Ireland in comparison to education, abortion, or other social issues, they represent archaic institutions that should be removed in order to propel the country into a future where all of its citizens are allowed a certain amount of freedom that is balanced with the right to any religious or spiritual belief.
These changes not only strike hope by creating change in an otherwise stringent society but create a sense of change in similar cultures across the world. If Ireland can do it, why can’t anybody else?