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Woman Dies After Being Denied Abortion: When Religious Rules Trump Science

Ireland's anti-choice policies lead to a woman's death, and to domestic and international outcry.

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But no government has ever introduced laws to give effect to the ruling and there is no means for any woman to clarify whether she qualifies for a medical termination under X.

Not one.

Though this writer and many others in Ireland have petitioned for clarifying legislation, they are up against entrenched and powerful opponents.

For instance, a group of pro-life doctors recently convened to declare, falsely, that abortion is never medically necessary--even to save the life of the mother. Meanwhile, a new abortion clinic in Belfast is also drawing fire from anti-choicers, because even though it technically belongs to the UK, opposition on the island is so intense that abortion services were for a long time excluded even in the six counties of the North.

As vigils and marches pop up around the country and at embassies abroad, it’s worth considering the political circumstances that make Ireland, in other cases a liberal modern European democracy, such a unique case for abortion politics.

Galway, where Savita Halappanavar lived, with its gay bars and transient population, is the city that welcomed me when I was 19 for a semester abroad. It opens its pub-lined streets to thousands of American kids each year, who come to Ireland to party and connect with their ancestral roots. (I like to quip that I had no roots to discover, being Jewish, but I read a lot of Joyce and Yeats.) The popular joke at the time I was there was three things never to bring up in a pub: The "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, abortion and the proposed smoking ban. The third was the joke--the first two were genuinely contentious.

When I sat down in my Irish women’s studies class that autumn nearly a decade ago I discovered that almost everyone else around me was American. This was mostly because it fit in with our foreign-student schedules, I think. Still, I remember at the time feeling sorry for our professor, a veteran feminist, because she had to talk about Ireland’s abortion policy and other difficult local issues to a group of beer-soaked American girls who took their own hard-won reproductive rights for granted.

I do remember her telling us about the “thousands of silent journeys” that Irish women make each year to the UK for abortions. She called the more liberal English laws and easy transit options “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”--a way of evading a tough national debate about abortion. You see in Ireland, the abortion debate pits the country’s modern reality (condom dispensers in nightclubs, immigration) with its long, mostly ethnically homogenous Catholic history, and -- this is particularly important -- its use of Catholicism as a site of resistance to violent and oppressive imperialism from Britain.

The last time I was in Dublin, a brief overnight stop in 2008, the Irish people were preparing for a referendum on a contentious EU resolution. We saw posters everywhere opposing Ireland’s involvement in the treaty that warned of more foreign workers arriving and of “abortion on demand” being imported from abroad.

Even as the church has been pilloried for sex abuse and corruption scandals, the abortion issue is a cultural one, too, that goes beyond church hierarchy. When people say that Ireland is “backward” because of its restrictive abortion laws, for instance, it feeds into age-old racialized stereotypes about Irish people that were used to justify colonization.

Today on Twitter, some Irish feminists noted that the sudden interest of British women in Irish abortion laws made them uncomfortable exactly because of that imperialist legacy.

 
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