It came as a great surprise to women activists on reproductive rights, and indeed to the general population, when a hitherto unknown ‘pro-life’ group appeared in 1981 arguing for a referendum of the population on the subject of abortion. They sought to insert a foetal right to life clause in the Irish written Constitution. It was a surprise because no one was campaigning for abortion at the time. Indeed the main concern was the absence of a legal right to contraception for women and men and teenage girls and boys. This was not a situation where some gains had been made which were now being unwound - as in the USA.
In fact, abortion has been illegal since 1861, when Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom. Nothing much changed for the better for women when Ireland became independent in 1922. Up to 1967, pregnant women with unwanted pregnancies in Ireland either had their baby in England and gave the child up for adoption, used the limited abortion provisions in England (Infant Life Preservation Act, 1929) or, if young and unmarried, were placed in a convent laundry in Ireland where they gave birth in secret and their child was taken away for adoption in Ireland or the USA. Information or publication on abortion of any type was banned under censorship laws. English magazines with advertisements for abortion clinics in the UK were threatened with being banned from circulation in Ireland. In 1977, feminist Marie McMahon was prosecuted for having copies of the banned UK feminist magazine Spare Rib.Add a comment