State of Isolation: abortion restrictions in Ireland

// 29 January 2010

Human Rights Watch have released an in-depth report on access to abortion (or, rather, lack thereof) for women in Ireland, called State of Isolation. It highlights the Irish government’s wilful refusal to respect the human rights of women seeking abortion, evidenced by the lack of clarity surrounding abortion laws, the refusal to review laws that restrict women’s right to access information on abortion in Ireland or abroad and the failure to deal with anti-choice ‘rogue agencies’ claiming to provide advice and help for women considering an abortion.

An undercover investigator from a pro-choice organisation approached one of these agencies, telling them she was five weeks pregnant (at which point the embryo would be the size of a grain of rice):

…the first thing they did was to ask what I would do, and I said that I’d probably terminate…. So she pulled out this sheet that was ostensibly a consent form from Australia. It said that I understand that I most certainly will need a hysterectomy … that I might end up with the need for a colostomy bag…. That I won’t hold the doctor liable for the infection that I’d certainly get…. Next thing was a list of side-effects…. Breast cancer, cervical cancer … [it said] most women end up with infections, infertile.

She said … that I’d become promiscuous, or frigid, one of the two [after an abortion]…. That most relationships break up…. That is it likely to cause congenital depression, that is not only would I get depressed, but also my family…. That I would be at increased risk of abusing any other children I might have or get…. That it caused tearfulness and sighing…. Then she showed me a video of ultrasounds, and of a doctor explaining what I now know is a very late term abortion procedure … she showed me the instruments. Then she showed me a plastic fetus the size of a pen … and told me that’s what my baby looked like … the plastic fetus was sucking its thumb and had eyelashes

Needless to say, this is all bullshit. Other women reported being harassed by agency workers, receiving repeated phone calls asking them when they were going to “kill their baby”. It’s worth pointing out that anti-choice organisations in the UK also promote their “services” as impartial. These include Crisis and Care Confidential.

The authors of the report couldn’t find a single example of a legal abortion being performed in Ireland, despite the fact that it should be legal in cases where the woman’s life is at risk. Both women accessing abortion and service providers risk life imprisonment and this, combined with the lack of clarity surrounding the law, means no one is prepared to risk testing out the exception for life-threatening pregnancies. Instead, women are forced to access illegal abortions or travel abroad. Human Rights Watch believe that the Irish government use the proximity of countries such as the UK where abortion is legal to abdicate its responsibility to protect women’s human rights.

Meanwhile, the decision on women A, B and C’s challenge to Irish abortion law in the EU Court of Human Rights will be announced in the autumn.

Comments From You

depresso // Posted 29 January 2010 at 11:46 am

I realise that it’s hardly the part to focus on but the idea that abortion causes “tearfulness and sighing”??

Oh how I hope that Ireland gets safe and legal abortion access sooner rather than later…

maggie o' // Posted 29 January 2010 at 12:28 pm

Im so glad I dont live in ireland anymore. This is just so depressing and ireland is still run by religion and priests and nuns.

Niamh // Posted 29 January 2010 at 12:51 pm

Yes – so depressing. Things are changing in Ireland and people are beginning to resent the Catholic church’s interference in civil issues but even within that struggle women’s issues are not seen as a priority.

For example, a recent Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI pole found that 61% people believe the church should give up control of the school system (a move I would whole-heartedly support). The church response to this poll made the front page. By contrast, the short article on the Human Rights Watch study was burried on page 7. One would think that the calling out of Irish laws and government by an international human rights organisation would produce a little more reaction in the media…Oh I despair.

earwicga // Posted 29 January 2010 at 1:04 pm

Seems to me that the everything untrue said about abortion are actually possible outcomes of pregnancy and childbirth! Shocking that this is still done in 2010.

@ maggie o’

From reading about clerical child abuse, I had got a sense that the church’s hold on Ireland is on the decline. Is that anywhere near the case?

Josie // Posted 29 January 2010 at 1:15 pm

Me too, Maggie O’, me too! I feel sick after reading this, what a barbaric bunch of crap to say to a (possibly) scared vulnerable woman. How can these people claim to value human life and yet engage so readily in downright emotional abuse? Vile creatures.

FeminaErecta // Posted 29 January 2010 at 2:17 pm

What a vile thing for a woman to say to another woman. I am so very very sorry for the Irish women who have to go through this. I had an abortion two years ago at a Marie Stopes in Leeds and the professionalism and kind compassion of all the staff there is something that I will be always greatful and thankful for.

earwicga // Posted 29 January 2010 at 2:23 pm

Niamh, it’s wrong, but isn’t the move to secularise education intrinsicly linked to raising Irish women’s human rights though?

I took my children out of a RC school last year for various reasons, one of being the stress it was inducing in them – one way was in the focus on the stereotypical family of two hetero parents etc. which was built into the whole teaching framework.

Niamh // Posted 29 January 2010 at 3:28 pm

Hi earwicga. Undoubtedly secularising education in Ireland would be in the interests of all citizens and would be in the interest of women’s rights for particular reasons as you mention. I’m glad the school issue is getting media attention as this is something I also feel strongly about.

My point (and apologies if I wasn’t very clear) is that issues which are centred specifically around women tend to get relegated to ‘special interest’ status. I’m just really disappointed that the HRW report is not getting the attention it deserves as I think the condemnation of an independent human right’s organisation could have a powerful effect on public support for women’s rights.

Ariel Silvera // Posted 29 January 2010 at 4:05 pm

Feminists here in Ireland are really glad this report came out. Often it feels like we’re talking in the wilderness, and that few people listen. We’ve been fighting the rogue agencies for a while, and it’s just amazing that the Irish government hasn’t even moved on something as small as THAT, but it’s what we’re used to expect from this establishment.

For some more info on the history of reproductive rights in Ireland, check out the 2008 feature, published here at The F Word, written by me and a friend from Choice Ireland: /features/2008/10/were_all_in_thi

maggie // Posted 29 January 2010 at 4:23 pm

Count me in too Maggie O’. Tearfulness and sighing sounds like it came from a book about gynaecology in the Victorian ages. I also think it’s shocking that the information given to the undercover reporter is allowed to be deseminated in a country that’s a member state of the EU. I mean if clinics gave out misleading information on Aids, such as condoms can actually give you Aids…oh wait this does happen.

When is the EU going to step in on this? Bizarre Catholic beliefs have no place in a medical setting. The only consequence can be harm.

Butterflywings // Posted 29 January 2010 at 5:10 pm

Tearfulness and sighing? Sounds like an average January Monday morning to me.

Seriously though. WTF is wrong with these people? By which I mean the ‘pro-life’ morons who tell lies about how abortion is EVIL. This is not acceptable; it is human rights abuse. I’ll read your and your friend’s piece, Ariel.

Politicalguineapig // Posted 29 January 2010 at 7:30 pm

Among the very many wrong things that could be picked on: How in the world would you end up needing a colostomy bag after an abortion? Unless anatomy has suddenly been rewritten, the intestines are nowhere near the reproductive system. Someone please explain this to me.

And I’d think one would be less likely to abuse future children, as they’d be planned for.

Shea // Posted 30 January 2010 at 2:05 pm

@politicalguineapig – exactly!

The whole thing is ridiculous, I’ve never heard of a woman needing a hysterectomy following an abortion. In the case of some BIRTHS, yes. Also the result of a fistula following birth could mean incontinence, but not in the case of abortion.

I just find it so bizarre that this is 21st century democracy, that has produced some the the most progressive and enlightened minds and thinkers, but is still in the grip of superstition and religious nonsense.

And harmful nonsense at that. Abortion in a clean, clinical setting by a qualified medic is a much safer procedure than giving birth, everytime. The breast/cervical cancer argument is always trotted out by anti-choicers (I won’t use the term “pro-life” because I don’t think its accurate). Because women who have children have less of a risk of breast cancer than those who remain childless. Its not having an abortion that makes you more at risk of having breast cancer as they disingeniously suggest. Its not having children at all. The comparison should be with childless women, like nuns, perhaps…….?

The child abuse thing is just plain ridiculous. The organisation should be fined for providing deliberately inaccurate and misleading information. The bitter irony is of course the main child abusers in Ireland have been those in religious institutions, who by and large have been “celibate” -oh and anti choice.

I would encourage anyone seeking an abortion to contact a Marie Stopes clinic, or Brook advisory service for reliable and accurate information surrounding abortion. This is a decision for women, and only women, the Catholic church and the Irish & Northern Irish governments can get stuffed.

Louise // Posted 31 January 2010 at 3:47 pm

@maggie o’ – I don’t think that Ireland is “run by religion and priests and nuns” as there are hardly any priests and nuns left. Instead, I think the real problem is that a very highly conservative, right-wing minority is very well-funded, and uses this money to orchestrate massive anti-abortion campaigns and set up these unethical rogue agencies that disseminate lies about abortion safety.

These rogue agencies are very hard to avoid. There are stickers inside toilet doors in universities, nightclubs etc. for various agencies that say to “call if you think you might be pregnant”, all claiming they’ll give non-judgmental advice. Since I recognise some as them as funded by fundamentalist anti-abortion organisations, I very much doubt their advice has the physical and mental wellbeing of woman as their primary aim.

The Crisis Pregnancy Agency has been campaigning against these rogue agencies for the last few months. Unfortunately, they (and other liberal pro-abortion organisations such as are not as well-funded as their anti-abortion counterparts). The CPA website lists a number of services around Ireland where counselling is free and genuinely non-judgmental ( and also at I only wish more women knew where to access these services, and that these websites could become better-known as a source of unbiased information.

Until we have safe and legal abortion in Ireland, those with the loudest voices are going to claim they represent the majority view.

Apollonie // Posted 1 February 2010 at 12:05 pm

Shea, re. your quote “the comparison should be with childless women, like nuns perhaps?”


I’m sure that’ll make all the childLESS women out there feel much better! And I’m sure you’re aware that nuns are not the only women who don’t have children.

I don’t think comparisons like this would be helpful, to say the least, mainly because there are SO many risk categories for breast cancer it’s practically impossible not to fall into one or more of them. Even menz have been known to get it!

Agree that whether or not to have an abortion is a decision for only women to make. I think it’s incredible that this kind of abuse of human rights is allowed to continue in Ireland, esp. given that it’s in the EU.

Elmo // Posted 1 February 2010 at 12:14 pm

I’m still reeling from discovering abortion was illegal in Ireland/Northern Ireland in the first place. I feel so young and naive…

Politicalguineapig // Posted 1 February 2010 at 7:41 pm

Shea: Thank you. I totally agree with most of your comment. The bit about breast cancer is a bit problematic-in my case, I’m currently childless, but I have a history of it in my family, so my risk would probably stay the same if I had kids.

Louise: The country is actually run by people who were educated by nuns and priests, so there’s really not much of a difference. The only way it’ll progress is when the older generation retires, hopefully handing over the reigns to a new progressive generation.

Kath // Posted 1 February 2010 at 10:17 pm

Just want to point out (in response to Shea) that the horrific abuse inflicted on children over the years in Catholic-run institutions is actually a very small percentage of the total. In Ireland (as elsewhere) the majority of child abuse is carried out by a relative or close family friend.

Shea // Posted 3 February 2010 at 3:53 pm

@ Apollonie- I wasn’t having a dig at childless women. I have no children either. The nuns was a snipe at religion more than women who choose not to have children. There is a slightly less statistical risk of having breast cancer if you have children (and if you breastfeed). My point was, it isn’t abortion that increases your risk of having breast cancer (as you point out there are other factors) but childless in general. I get very angry when I see anti-choice organisation distort this to imply that having an abortion increases your risk of breast cancer, when this is patently false.

@ Kath – I’m aware that the majority of child abuse is by a relative, but I don’t think you can classify the widespread and systematic institutionalisation and abuse of children in Ireland as a ” very small percentage of the total”. Thousands of child abuse victims (those who have been abused by abusers in religious organisations) have come forward since the 1980s, and the depth and scale of the abuse is horrendous (and still only partially revealed). I don’t think it is fair or accurate to the victims to dismiss this.

Kath // Posted 4 February 2010 at 11:31 pm

@Shea I wasn’t dismissing it, I made an accurate statement that it is a very small percentage of the total. You said the ‘main’ child abusers were those in religious institutions which is not true. That’s all. I wasn’t disagreeing with your sentiments.

Shea // Posted 5 February 2010 at 3:00 pm

@ Kath- but it isn’t an accurate statement to say those abusers in religious institutions are a “very small percentage of the total” actually estimates put them as high as 70 % of all cases of abuse. There has not been to my mind any comprehensive study of the scale of abuse by the Catholic church or organisations connected to it, nor is there ever likely to be. Class actions against the church have named in excess of 30,000 petitioners. There may be more who never come forward. There are also plenty of documents and identities relating to the abuse that have never been disclosed. (Such as the legal action by the Christian Brothers in 2000 to keep the identities of abusers anonymous). The truth is neither one of us can accurately say whether more abuse has been committed by families & relatives or by the Catholic Church. Its not a valid hypothesis because there are so many variables and as I said there will never be definitive research into this area, because it will never be allowed.

Kath // Posted 5 February 2010 at 11:17 pm

@Shea The SAVI report puts the figure at around 4%. The percentage carried out by family members seems to be about 15% so I have been overestimating too.

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