The Shadow of Irish Women: An Irish American Intersectional Feminist on Abortion Rights in Ireland // Meredith A. Martyr


            I was born and raised a feminist. As I have grown I have come to understand the imperative belief in intersectional feminism. I spent my childhood and teenage years volunteering for one of my United State’s Senators (Paul Wellstone), Planned Parenthood, and Amnesty International. Through these various causes, I found myself drawn towards sociopolitics that were linked to my gender identity and healthcare issues, particularly reproductive healthcare. A woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body was an intrinsic belief that I never questioned. It was my air; the belief I breathed in and out, and took for granted.
            Another large part of my identity is my Irish heritage. I was raised by an Irish mother who breathed in feminist rhetoric with ease and grace. Growing up I heard from my mother’s side of the family about their Irish traditions all wrapped around an idea of sisterhood, education, and a strong work ethic.
            I was in Ireland a year ago presenting at an international mental health conference when I met someone with a pin with the number eight on it. I questioned what it was about and he informed me that it was a pin worn in protest of the eighth amendment in Ireland that women are not granted the right to elect for an abortion. I was fascinated that this country that I am so in love with and is so a part of my identity could so deeply be against all that I am about; a person’s right to choose to do whatever they want to their body. I knew in that moment that I had found an area of research that was both personally and professionally important to me.
            In 1983, Irish legislators passed the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act which gave specific recognition to the life of an unborn child and bans all abortion-related services (Human Rights Watch, 2010). Furthermore, Irish medical professionals who assist in abortion procedures are charged with a criminal offense and may receive up to 24 years in prison. The Catholic Church supported this constitutional act via public campaigns and donations to the Irish government (Human Rights Watch, 2010). There have been a series of cases in which Irish women have died due to “back-alley” abortions or where the mother’s life was at risk, but the fetus was still viable. Due to a national and international backlash, the Irish government passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013. This law states that abortion is illegal unless performed in order to save the life of the mother (Hug, 2016).
            An estimated 160,000 Irish women have traveled to Great Britain to receive abortions over the past 33 years (Gentleman, 2015). This is likely a conservative estimate, as it only includes women who provided an Irish home address; most women choose not to disclose this information (Gentleman, 2015). The Irish government continues to receive severe scrutiny from multiple international human rights organizations. In 2016, the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights Committee declared that Ireland’s abortion law violates the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Amnesty International, 2016).
            According to the United Kingdom (UK) Department of Health, about nine Irish women each day travel to the U.K. for access to abortion services. In 2009, 1,200 abortion pills were seized by Irish customs (Bloomer & O’Dowd, 2014), and according to the UK Department of Health (2008), abortion is the most common gynecological procedure for Irish women, with an estimated 1 in 10-15 Irish women of reproductive age having received an abortion.
            Ireland has historically been a country where abortion was made inaccessible to it female citizens. Through restrictive legislation, the Irish government has continued to limit information regarding safe and legal abortion services, and has refused to take legal action against agencies who spread false medical information about abortion procedures to Irish citizens (Human Rights Campaign, 2010). In 2016, an Irish Supreme Court judge ordered the formation of a Citizens’ Assembly of the Eighth Amendment charged with debating whether this Amendment should continue. In April 2017, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended to the Irish government that the Eighth Amendment be revisited due to its potential human rights violation against Irish women (Humphries, 2017). To date, it is unknown what actions may arise in response to this recommendation. Although the Irish government has taken steps towards legalizing abortion in the past couple of years, Ireland continues to have a longstanding anti-abortion history supported by legal rhetoric, religious beliefs, and societal norms/attitudes (Hug, 2016).
            Research regarding abortion stigma experienced by women who reside in countries where abortion is illegal is in its infancy. Given Ireland’s unique religious, cultural, and political framework that continually holds abortion illegal, women residing in Ireland who have had abortions comprise a unique population.
            I defend my dissertation in June 2017 and I will be presenting my research that I performed in Ireland on the unique experiences Irish women have regarding abortion stigma. These lived experiences are hidden behind several patriarchal and historically thick veils that must be undone in order for these historically erased voices to be legitimized. Irish women are collectively screaming out for their narratives to be heard, I feel the presence of my Irish female-identified relatives reaching out as well. It is my ethical, moral, and professional duty as a counseling psychologist-in-training to bring to light the historically unheard voices, identities, etc. and to create systems that support groups that have been historically marginalized. Personally, however, this research project has had so much meaning and purpose. My intersectional feminist identity has been strengthened by this research and my personal identity as an Irish American woman feels fuller.
Amnesty International. (2016). Irelands Ban on Abortions Violates Human Rights. Retrieved from
Bloomer, F., & O'Dowd, K. (2014). Restricted access to abortion in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland: exploring abortion tourism and barriers to legal reform. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 16(4), 366-380.
Gentleman, A. (2015). ‘It was the scariest thing I've ever done”: the Irish women forced to travel for abortions. Retrieved from
Hug, C. (2016). The politics of sexual morality in Ireland. New York: Springer.
Humphries, Conor (2017). Irish citizens assembly recommends change to abortion laws. Reuters Press. Retrieved from

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