Ireland’s abortion decision: a photo essay

On Friday Ireland will vote in a referendum that could in effect end the ban on abortion. Voters will be asked if they want to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution, which recognises the equal right to life of mother and unborn child.

Every year, 3,000 Irish women travel overseas, usually to the UK, to end pregnancies, including those caused by rape or incest. Expectant mothers diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities – meaning the baby may die before full term or is not expected to live for long – must also travel to the UK for terminations.

Graffitti artist Shirani Bolle paints an image of Savita Halappanavar, who died after doctors refused her an abortion in 2012

  • Graffitti artist Shirani Bolle paints a mural of Savita Halappanavar, who died after doctors refused her an abortion in 2012.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis after miscarrying her daughter, after doctors refused her an abortion. Her death shocked Ireland and brought new awareness and energy to the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment.

Some of the amendment’s consequences have been unexpected: women lose autonomy over their bodies as soon as they become pregnant, and because doctors have an equal responsibility to foetus and mother, many discourage home births. Ireland has the lowest rate of home births in Europe.

For Caitriona Kenny, from Dublin, whose mother was forced to adopt her son, a home birth was a rebellious act against the state’s control of her body.

Catriona Kenny gives birth to her son, Tom

  • A rebellious act: Catriona Kenny gives birth at home to her son, Tom, while her two-year-old daughter, Nora and husband, Derek, look on, in Dublin. Right: Catriona feeding Tom after the birth.
Catriona Kenny breastfeeds her newborn son after giving birth at home in Dublin

For many voters in favour of retaining the current laws, opposition to abortion is not a question of women’s rights but rather of equating termination of pregnancies with murder. They believe a repeal of the eighth amendment as a retrograde step for human rights.


My grandmother was bound to the Catholic church by guilt learned in childhood and the thrill of forgiveness

Olivia Harris
Megan Scott, a repeal campaigner, dressed as Saint Brigid, patron of Ireland, in Dublin

  • Megan Scott, a repeal campaigner, is dressed as Saint Brigid, patron of Ireland, on Dublin’s main shopping street.

Ireland, once described by Pope Paul VI as “the most Catholic country on earth”, has undergone a massive change in the past 30 years. Its moral authority has been damaged by a series of scandals, including the compulsory servitude of young unmarried mothers by nuns and the forced adoption of their babies. The discovery of the remains of babies in sewers at Tuam monastery in 2017 as well as clerical child abuse scandals have made headlines around the world.

Students buoyed by the international women’s movement call for greater autonomy over their bodies at a protest in Dublin

  • Students buoyed by the #MeToo international women’s movement stage a rally calling for the state to grant them greater autonomy over their bodies.
Giant figures called Cassandras wait to parade through Limerick in a silent appeal to residents to repeal the eighth amendment

  • Artist Alice Maher uses reflective discs on the heads of figures called Cassandras to represent what she sees as society’s hypocrisy.

Despite the recent scandals engulfing the Catholic church, Irish identity is bound up with the religion. First Holy Communion remains a rite of passage for girls in Ireland, despite the falling attendance of weekly mass from 63% in 2002 to 48% in 2010.

New mothers, aged 18, share a joke after learning how to put on condoms

  • New mothers, aged 18, share a joke after learning how to put on condoms at a sex education class run by the Brook sexual health clinic.

Although the church’s influence has waned, it retains control over sex education in almost all Irish schools.

A man shows off tattoos of his children on a hot day in Dublin

  • A man shows off tattoos of his children on a hot day in Dublin.
Catholic students carry a statue of Mary, mother of Jesus

  • Catholic students carry a statue of Mary as part of a co-ordinated nationwide prayer on Ireland’s beaches to keep abortion out of Ireland.

Ireland legalised contra­ception in 1985 but some people believe it is an offence against God and nature.

The Irish Catholic church has asked followers to work actively to reject any change to abortion laws. Devotees have held prayer vigils at “mass rocks”, historic sites at which priests held services in secret when Catholicism was suppressed by the British.

A woman kisses a statue of Mary

  • A woman in Carlingford kisses a statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, after a nationwide prayer to save the eighth amendment, in March.
An anti-abortion campaigner recites the Eucharist with a priest at the summit of Croagh Patrick, a holy mountain in County Mayo, on 26 August 2017.

  • An anti-abortion campaigner recites the Eucharist with a priest at the summit of Croagh Patrick, a holy mountain in County Mayo, on 26 August 2017.

In 2017, two crisis pregnancy centres with links to anti-abortion groups were investigated after reportedly telling women that abortion causes breast cancer and infertil­ity, contraception was dangerous and that women could die from having sex.

And yet Irish public opinion is moving away from its past. In 1992, homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland; in 2015 it became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by referendum. The country now has an openly gay prime minister, Leo Varadkar, a former GP.

The rosary of the unborn, designed by the Ohio-based organisation Holy Love

A prop used by pro-life campaigners to show pregnant women considering abortion the size of a foetus in the womb

  • The Rosary of the Unborn, designed by the Ohio-based organisation Holy Love, for sale in Knock. Right: A prop used by anti-abortion campaigners to show pregnant women considering abortion the size of a foetus in the womb.
Andrea Horan, who owns a nail bar, wears a Repeal the Eighth badge

  • Andrea Horan, who owns a nail bar, wears a Repeal the Eighth badge. She encourages her technicians to wear repeal T-shirts.

During the 1983 referendum a bucket of pig’s blood was poured over a pro-choice campaigner and verbal abuse was exchanged on the streets. This time campaigners have been more restrained. The repeal jumper, now symbolic of the campaign, was the first quiet call for a change to the law. A flurry of performance art, embroidered banners and T-shirts followed in an attempt to encourage discussion on the subject.

Women dance in repeal jumpers

  • Women dance in repeal jumpers, now symbolic of the campaign.

All photographs by Olivia Harris, supported by the International Women’s Media Fund.

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