GALWAY, Ireland — I came to Ireland four years ago to cover the searing story of the Scarlet Letter in the Emerald Isle.
Back then, Ireland had a harsh abortion law, shaped by the views of the Catholic Church. The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, added in 1983, gave fetuses rights equal to the mother’s, ensuring abortion would be illegal, even in cases of rape or incest. Anyone getting the procedure or buying abortion pills online faced up to 14 years in prison. Women were forced to sneak out of the country and go to London if they wanted abortions. Some women went to loan sharks to get the money to travel.
In 2018, a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment roiled Ireland with turbulent arguments on a subject that had been subterranean for eons. Edna O’Brien captured the tortured drama in her novel “Down by the River,” based on the sensational 1992 case of a 14-year-old who was raped by a friend’s father and became suicidal when she was barred from leaving the country to get an abortion. She later miscarried.
There was also the heart-wrenching 2012 story of Savita Halappanavar, who rushed to a Galway hospital in distress the day after her baby shower. She was told that her 17-week-old fetus was going to die. As she went into septic shock, she begged the medical team to remove the fetus and save her life. One midwife coldly reminded her that she was in “a Catholic country.” She died after her stillborn infant. The horror of that case galvanized the Emerald Isle.
I felt grateful as I covered the referendum, which passed resoundingly, that I lived in a more enlightened America, which had long had the protection of Roe.
Now I am back and stunned that Ireland and the United States have traded places. Ireland leaped into modernity, rejecting religious reactionaries’ insistence on controlling women’s bodies. America lurched backward, ruled by religious reactionaries’ insistence on controlling women’s bodies.
Once, Ireland seemed obsessed with punishing women. Now it’s America.
During the repeal debate, I had dinner in Dublin with prominent women from both sides of the issue. It got passionate.
Una Mullally, a columnist for The Irish Times, was there that night, making the case for repeal. I talked to her on Thursday, curious to see what she thought about Ireland and America swapping roles: Ireland growing less benighted; America more so. Ireland less influenced by the dictates of the Catholic Church; America more influenced, reflecting the views of the five right-wing Catholics on the Supreme Court and Neil Gorsuch, an Episcopalian who was raised Catholic. Ireland once had too much church in the state. Now America does.
“If you had told me 15 years ago that abortion would be legal in Ireland and illegal in many parts of the United States, I would have suggested that you see a psychiatrist,” said Niall O’Dowd, the founder of Irishcentral.com and author of “A New Ireland: How Europe’s Most Conservative Country Became Its Most Liberal.” He mused darkly, “Now that the world has turned upside down, there will be charter flights from America to Ireland for abortions.”
Mullally called it painful to watch but not surprising. “I thought this was going to happen,” she said, citing Donald Trump’s inflammatory claim during a 2016 debate that Hillary Clinton’s stance on abortion meant “You can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” Trump also said in an interview that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions, later amending it to say that doctors should be punished. “I thought, ‘That’s it,’” Mullally recalled. “People thought there was this American dream but it’s clearly becoming more of an American nightmare.”
She is mystified at the weak response of President Biden and the Democrats, calling it “appeasement” and “magical thinking,” given that Trump and the Republicans had spent years loading the courts with conservatives who were restricting abortion.
“Democrats saying, ‘Women’s rights are on the ballot’ and ‘Vote in November!’ is offensive,” she said. “This is not about votes for your party. Nothing is as important as bodily autonomy. And November? This happened in June. People should be out on the streets. Rape victims are crossing state lines.” That includes the horrifying case of the 10-year-old in Ohio who was raped and had to travel to Indiana to get an abortion.
A segment of Americans never accepted Roe; it was the source of endless, divisive battles. But in Ireland, legalized abortion seems to be accepted; some doctors don’t offer it; others will. And the church isn’t fighting back much; its power was decimated by the pedophile priest scandal.
“As the Irish feminist Ailbhe Smyth said, the greatest victory in 2018 was that the referendum carried without the country being split,” Mullally said. “It’s about creating an empathetic framework of discourse so that people are not at each other’s throats.”
She gets it. Why don’t we?