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Ireland May Allow Limited Abortions


In the Republic of Ireland, the Catholic Church has been entwined with the state since its very founding. Divorce did not become legal in that country until 1995. And it's always just gone without saying that abortion in Ireland is illegal, but now that looks set to change.

This past week, politicians in the Republic of Ireland voted to allow abortion if a woman's life is in danger or if she is at risk of suicide.

We called up John Waters. He's an author and opinion columnist for the Irish Times, and he told us that there is a reason this change is happening now.

JOHN WATERS: We've had a long controversy about these matters for over 30 years. And back 30 years ago, we put an amendment in the constitution, which seemed to copper-fasten the protections for the unborn child. The idea was to make it impossible to introduce laws which would permit abortion. The part of the discussion was this element of suicide. That, you know, the idea a woman's life being in danger, could it also be in danger, would it be deemed to be in danger, if suicide was the issue?

Last autumn, there was a - last fall - there was a situation, a case happened where a woman died in hospital in Galway as a result, it was said, of a failure to give her an abortion when she requested one and when this would've saved her life. And this caused a huge controversy which drew attention to the lack of clarity in the law and most politicians preferred not to have to deal with. And I think only for the case in Galway, the Halappanavar case - the Savita Halappanavar was the woman who died. Only for that case I think, I don't think we'd be where we are now.

MARTIN: I do want to pick up on the controversy over the suicide clause. So as I understand it then, it's not enough for a woman to just say, I don't want to have this child, it's causing me emotional distress. The woman actually needs to say, I may kill myself.


MARTIN: I mean, doesn't that introduce a whole other complication, where someone who doesn't want to have a baby would just say that she is on the brink of taking her own life?

WATERS: Throughout this debate we have found that very extreme and difficult cases emerge from time to time which create a huge public controversy. And as a result of that, there's a kind of an emotional pressure on politicians to move when in fact on a different basis - on the basis of logical reason perhaps, or simply argument - they might be less inclined to do so. But they feel tremendous pressure because of the public outpouring.

I mean, it's very odd to observe public opinion on this issue that, you know, people will say - a majority of people might well say - in principle to the question, are you in favor of abortion, they will say no. But if you start introducing different qualifications - oh, well, in this situation or that situation would you be then - they say well, perhaps. You know, so there's kind of a leaky consensus on that issue.

MARTIN: But as you allude to, this has been an incredibly controversial issue in Ireland for generations.


MARTIN: You would assume that the Catholic Church would be against this. But what does this mean for the church's influence in broader Irish society?

WATERS: Well, it's very interesting. I mean, for me personally, I think there's an issue here about Catholicism. You know, I'm a Catholic and I'm aware of the difficulties that the Catholic Church faces in our culture now; to do with the loss of faith, the difficulties of reconciling faith and reason in a modern culture, and also the scandals which have afflicted the church here in Ireland over the last, 10, 20 years. And so, you know, the church's voice has become muted out of necessity on many issues.

MARTIN: Is this a generational issue at all? Do opinions vary based on age? Do younger people feel differently about this than older generations of Irish?

WATERS: They do. They do, indeed. I mean and that division very much reflects the problem with the religious. I mean, I speak a lot to in religious contexts in churches and parish halls as a journalist, as a public speaker. And, you know, I find in those contexts my audience profile is very clearly 50-plus. And, of course, all of those people are pretty much all of them are (unintelligible) about abortion, they're opposed to abortion very strongly and they identify that with their religion.

Now, younger people don't have that allegiance to the Catholic Church or to the faith. And equally, they tend to be, by and large, pro-choice. That's the way it's going. However, I think that in Ireland, we have this desire - you see, Ireland has always suffered from a sense of embarrassment because it perceived itself and it was perceived by other countries as being somewhat backward. And in recent decades, we've really been trying to catch up and disprove this thesis about ourselves, and to show that we are as modern and progressive as the rest of the world. And that tends to affect Irish politics very, very strongly.

MARTIN: Can you in the long term imagine Ireland moving toward a wider acceptance of abortion, to making abortion legal not just in medical emergencies?

WATERS: Oh, I can, and I've always said it would happen because it has always seemed to me that once you put an issue like this on the table and start the debate about it, that you are moving inexorably towards the destination point that is desired by those promoting the agenda. I can't see any way that, you know, there might be some kind of retrenchment, how there might be some kind of backlash, as it were, which would succeed in overturning or preventing this going forward in all kinds of ways.

It seems to me that that's the nature of modern society; that it's almost as if we believe that certain things go with being modern, and the sooner we move towards them the better. That seems to be the attitude and it seems that no matter where you stand on that, eventually you're swept along by it.

MARTIN: John Waters is an author and columnist with the Irish Times. He joined us from Dublin.

Mr. Waters, thank you so much.

WATERS: Thank you very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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