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"Ireland is a Catholic Country."
By Fay Funk
In college I inadvertently stumbled across a very interesting subject that eventually became my minor: Irish Studies. NYU happens to have one of the best Irish Studies programs in the country, so I was very fortunate to have passionate and knowledgeable professors in what I found to be a fascinating topic. I was also fortunate in that I was able to spend six weeks of my summer in Ireland for a study abroad program. Needless to say, Ireland was beautiful and very fun. I have very fond memories of my time in Dublin but there is one thing that sticks out in my mind in a very negative way: the anti-abortion posters I saw.
Peppered throughout the city were small posters that struck me in how different they were from the anti-abortion propaganda I had seen in the United States. Having lived only in very liberal cities, I had never seen an anti-abortion poster outside of the very rare protest at a clinic. The images I saw in the United States were clearly designed for shock value; images of bloody fetuses screaming in pain. The posters I saw in Ireland, however, were never violent. The one that I remember the most was a picture of a heartbroken young woman looking directly into the camera, with makeup streaming down her face as she cried.
Those images, to me, were far more potent and emotionally manipulative than anything I had seen in the United States. The bloody fetuses are so cartoonishly vile they are hard to take seriously, like a low-budget horror movie. It serves to make the person holding the sign feel self-satisfied and morally superior, more than to change another person’s mind. The crying woman sends a message of shame, that abortion is inherently wrong. That belief however has been disastrous in practice.
Up until recently, abortion was illegal in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The recent tragic case of Savita Halappanavar, a woman denied a life-saving abortion while she was miscarrying was the catalyst for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which allows abortion under extremely limited circumstances, mainly extreme risk to the life of the mother. The law comes almost 22 years after a landmark court case in Ireland,Attorney General v. X, also known as the X Case. A 14-year-old girl known only as X became pregnant as the result of rape, and she became suicidal. When the girl and her parents tried to travel to the UK for an abortion, the attorney general of Ireland issued an injunction against travel for X, making it impossible for her to leave the country to get an abortion. The court overturned the injunction, with the majority opinion stating that a woman had the right to an abortion when there was substantial risk to her life, including risk of suicide. Abortion has technically been legal in Ireland when the life of the mother is threatened for a long time, the government just chose not to do anything to enforce it.
Reading about these cases in Ireland I often find myself wondering: could this happen in the United States? I know the answer is yes, and in some cases the United States is already there. Though the laws in the United States are different from Ireland’s on abortion, the moral standpoints are very similar to Ireland in some parts of the US. In Texas right now there is a brain dead woman being kept on life support against her family’s wishes because she is 14 weeks pregnant. The woman is already dead for all intents and purposes, and in all likelihood her fetus is no longer viable. It’s the same logic for letting Savita Halappanavar die, though in Ireland they say it straight out. The Halappanavar family was reportedly told by doctors, “Ireland is a Catholic country.” The United States is not a Catholic country, but it is a religious country. To place the blame squarely on religion for these tragic and ridiculous cases is too simplistic though. Rather it’s the idea of being morally superior, whether it comes from religion or some other source, that leads to allowing a healthy woman to die even when the solution to saving her life is right there. The idea that a higher power, whether it’s a superior religion or system of government or race, justifies imposing certain beliefs on others, even when those beliefs are not to their benefit.
Fortunately there has been some recognition that one idea of moral superiority doesn’t really work for everyone in both the United States and Ireland. Despite neglecting taking action for years, the Irish government has recognized that letting a woman die of organ failure or suicide is unacceptable, even in a Catholic country. I don’t think abortion rights in Ireland will be granted beyond substantial risk to the mother’s life, or at least they won’t be anytime soon. It can take a long time to recognize that a personal moral position is not always the right position. Those of us in the United States should pay attention; what has happened in Ireland is a potential vision of the future in the United States. The progress in Ireland is fantastic, and the tragic history of abortion is we want to avoid.