This week, Ireland faces a vote on a change to the constitution that would allow for the introduction of a more liberal abortion regime. At present, abortion is only legal in cases where there is a “real and substantial” risk to the woman’s life, including from suicide. Given how strict the Irish law is, this means that where a woman has experienced rape, incest, a fatal foetal diagnosis, or a serious risk to her health, she is not entitled to a termination. Procuring a termination in such cases is a criminal offence, punishable with a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Faced with this, many women make alternative arrangements to access abortion, including travelling to other countries, usually to the UK, for services there, or taking abortion pills by themselves without proper medical supervision. Having to arrange such covert abortions is extremely stressful for women who are already undergoing crisis pregnancies. Moreover, not all women in Ireland have the means to access abortions even in this covert way, as access depends entirely on one’s circumstances, including financial means and immigration status. Since Ireland’s abortion law is so prohibitive, there is a long and protracted history of tragedies that has seen pregnant women die in Ireland, be denied cancer treatment, and be kept artificially alive - all to preserve the “unborn”, irrespective of the costs to women and their families.
As a scholar specialising in the role shame has played in Ireland’s gender history and the state’s treatment of women, it is clear to me that shame is central to the current debate on abortion in Ireland. Shame is usually understood as an emotion that can entail significant harms for people, as it assumes a deep-seated moral failing we try to cover. Shame can become toxic, threatening our ability to relate to other people, and causing severe mental anguish and distress. Women facing crisis pregnancies in Ireland, who are denied the healthcare they need, and are instead forced to arrange covert abortions, feel shamed by the Irish state. As one woman says, “I feel like if abortion was legal in Ireland I wouldn’t have been so ashamed! 12 years on I can happily say I have no regrets and I know I made the right decision.”
This sentiment, expressed by a vulnerable young woman who needed a termination but was denied health care in her home country and had to travel to the UK, indicates shame’s role in the Irish abortion ban. Many Irish women, though not experiencing abortion itself as shameful, relate feeling shamed by the State. The primary emotional response by women accessing terminations is usually relief, but the abortion ban in Ireland is in itself shaming as it establishes women as criminals who must covertly travel to other jurisdictions or secretly take abortion pills. Ireland’s legal prohibition on abortion, then, directly inflicts emotional and psychological harms through shaming in addition to physical harms (such as the denial of cancer treatment and other non-intervention to preserve a woman’s wellbeing).
A huge amount of work has been done in recent years to highlight such harms, both in terms of the psychological and the physical impact of the abortion ban on women in Ireland. Their many stories, including by the In Her Shoes Facebook Page quoted above, have been told in the run-up to Friday’s referendum, and have shone a light on the often covert, secretive nature of women’s navigation of a harmful law. Women who have experienced tragedies and been shamed simply for requiring reproductive healthcare in their home country, have bravely spoken out to reveal the cruelty and injustice of the current abortion regime in Ireland. They have broken the silence on abortion in Ireland, and the shame that comes with it, by relating their experiences and thereby undercut the stranglehold that shame has long had on the State’s policies on reproduction and sexuality.
Indeed, abortion is just one – albeit major – policy issue in a wider plethora of social policies throughout Ireland’s history that have utilised shame. For instance, Ireland is still coming to terms with the legacy of the mass-containment of women in institutions such as the Magdalen Laundries, where women were once incarcerated as “fallen” women and shamed for their perceived sexual and reproductive transgressions. Subsequent inquiries into such institutions have enabled us to see that shame has not served Ireland, especially the women of Ireland, well, and that shaming social policies can inflict severe harms on people, the effects of which we are still living with today. It is precisely because of this that Friday’s referendum presents such a unique and monumental opportunity for people in Ireland to address this in the context of abortion. Together, we can change Ireland’s culture of shame to bring about a more compassionate, caring, and just Ireland that refuses to shame women for their reproductive healthcare needs, and that learns from its past mistakes.