A belated fight

Ireland has the EU’s strictest abortion laws. Now, resistance is growing.

(A translation of this piece for the German daily paper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. The trip to Ireland was made possible through a grant by the Karl Gerold Foundation.)

Tara Flynn makes a living off being funny. She writes columns and books, she acts in comedy series, she’s being invited to radio shows. But at her most important public appearance in recent months, on a sunny autumn afternoon in a park in Dublin, her voice broke, and nobody laughed. It was the start of the March for Choice, a pro-choice demonstration. “I had an abortion”, Tara Flynn said. “I am not a murderer. I am not a criminal.” With her appearance, she put herself at the forefront of a fight that has long been settled in most of Europe, yet is only just starting in Ireland.

In 2015, Ireland was the first country in the world to introduce marriage same-sex marriage through a referendum. Suddenly it looked like a model country for liberalism. But the very same country has, together with Malta, the EU’s strictest abortion laws. A woman who has an abortion in Ireland can be punished with up to 14 years in prison – even if the child was conceived through rape or if it is so severely disabled it would die soon after birth. The only exception is a serious danger to the life of the mother.

In 1971, the German magazine Stern published a famous cover story with the headline “We’ve had an abortion”. 45 years later, a similar campaign is taking place in Ireland. Tara Flynn started it, Róisín Ingle, a journalist for the Irish Times, followed a week later. Then the website “X-ile Project” was launched, featuring photos of women who’ve had abortions. Together with liberal politicians and doctors, they are fighting for the repeal of the eight amendment of the Irish constitution which, with “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”, protects “the right to life of the unborn”.

The ban on abortion doesn’t keep Irish women from having abortions. It forces them to go abroad to have them. In 2014, at least 3,735 women living in Ireland had abortions in England and Wales alone. 76,000 did so since the turn of the century.

Two hours ahead of her next improv comedy gig, Tara Flynn sits in a bar in Dublin, clenching her hands. She still finds it difficult to talk about her trip to the Netherlands ten years ago. Flynn was 37 then. In the clinic in Utrecht, she was the only patient who was on her own. “It was incredibly isolating and terrifying”, she says. “I hadn’t told my doctor.  You don’t know what your own GP’s attitude is.”

At least, Flynn could afford a plane ticket to go abroad. For women who lack money for the ticket, ordering abortion pills online is the only option. But customs often seize these pills – they are illegal in Ireland, after all. Women who experience complications after taking abortion pills “may be afraid to go to their GP because of the criminalisation”, says Evelyn Geraghty, Counselling Director of the Irish Family Planning Association. Nobody knows how many Irish women have used abortion pills. There’s only one clue: the number of abortion pills seized by customs. In 2014, they confiscated 1,017 packets.

The consultation room where Evelyn Geraghty works is located in a basement off O’Connell street, at the edge of the Dublin inner city. Vertical blinds in front of the windows, safety doors, a CCTV camera. Ten years ago, radical pro life activists attacked and occupied the clinic that offers counselling about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases but also about unwanted pregnancies. Geraghty says there are still small protests in front of the clinic sometimes.

Many people in Ireland say the influence of the Catholic church has been fading in recent years, not least because of a number of child abuse scandals. According to Geraghty, there are historical reasons for the abortions laws being what they are. “When feminists in Germany, Italy or France were fighting for abortion in the Seventies, we were fighting for contraception”, she says. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980; until 1985, the Irish needed a prescription to buy condoms. Divorce has only been legal since 1997.

According to the European Social Survey, the number of Catholics in Ireland has slightly declined in recent years, down to 70 percent. But even today, 39 percent of the Irish go to church at least once a week. That’s more than in any other EU country except Poland. And to this day, most churches in Ireland are run by the Catholic church. “People underestimate the structural influence of the church in the schools and hospitals”, says Ivana Bacik, a pro choice activist and a Labour MP in the Seanad, the Irish Upper House. She also claims that pro life organisations in Ireland are getting massive support from the USA. “Ireland has now become a kind of last bastion for the anti choice forces”, Bacik says.

Ireland as an arena for the international fight about abortion: That might be the only point of consensus between Ivana Bacik and Thomas Finegan. Finegan, 31, works for Iona Institute, a conservative advocacy group. When he speaks about abortion, he speaks about “the killing of a child”. Finegan doesn’t think the ban on abortion is misogynist. On the contrary, he says it even protects women: “The primary cause of abortion is men” who, according to Finegan, pressure women into it. Finegan claims that men in England and in the USA even slip their partners abortion pills.

Support for anti-abortionists has been shrinking in Ireland in recent years due to a number of dramatic cases. The “X Case” in 1992, for example: A 14-year-old girl became pregnant from statutory rape, the state prevented her from leaving the country for an abortion even though she was suicidal. Eventually, 21 years later, the High Court decided that women have a right to an abortion if they are at risk of suicide. The Savita Halappanavar case in 2012: A dentist died of a septic miscarriage; doctors had refused to abort the dying fetus as long as its heart was beating. The “Y case” in 2014: Bureaucracy prevented an asylum seeker who was pregnant from rape and suicidal from leaving the country; the woman has since sued the Irish State. The “PP case”, also in 2014: A braindead pregnant woman was being kept on life support against her family’s will. Only after some weeks a court ruled that the machines could be turned off because the fetus wasn’t going to survive anyway.

By now, a majority of the Irish is in favour of more liberal abortion laws. Four out of five would make abortion legal in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities. But only 38 percent approve complete legalisation.

So liberals probably won’t be able to repeat the success of their same-sex marriage campaign on this topic. “It’s a much harder campaign to fight”, says senator Ivana Bacik, “there are no joyful stories, it’s not about love”. And actress Tara Flynn predicts the opponents’ campaign will be “a filthy, bloody mess”.

 

A belated fight

Ein Land wird ausgehöhlt

Irland hat die Wirtschafts- und Finanzkrise angeblich gut überstanden – aber dabei eine Generation junger, kreativer Menschen verloren

Vor ein paar Tagen hat Joe Byrne mit Freunden gefrühstückt. Sie machen das regelmäßig, früher trafen sie sich in Dublin, heute sitzen sie vor ihren Computern, die Webcams eingeschaltet: Brenda in Kanada, Luke in Hongkong, Sinéad in Moldawien und Joe daheim in Irland. Ungefähr ein Drittel seiner Freunde, sagt Byrne, habe in den vergangenen fünf Jahren das Land verlassen.

Irland gilt als Staat, der gut durch die Wirtschaftskrise gekommen ist; als Beispiel dafür, dass die von Europäischer Union (EU), Europäischer Zentralbank (EZB) und Internationalem Währungsfonds (IWF) verordnete Sparpolitik funktioniert. Tatsächlich hat sich die Wirtschaft des Landes nach einem massiven Einbruch leicht erholt. Aber seit Beginn der Krise im Jahr 2008 wandern junge Menschen in Scharen aus – und kommen oft nicht wieder … Weiterlesen auf sueddeutsche.de

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 3.8.2015

Ein Land wird ausgehöhlt

A country hollowed out

Ireland is said to have mastered the financial crisis well, but the country has lost a generation of young, creative people

(A translation of this piece for the German daily paper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”)

A few days ago, Joe Byrne had brunch with a few friends. They do that regularly – they used to meet up in Dublin, now they sit in front of their computers, their webcams turned on: Brenda in Canada, Luke in Hong Kong, Sinéad in Moldova, and Joe at home in Ireland. “About a third of my friends have left Ireland in the last five years”, Joe Byrne says.

Ireland is regarded as a country that has mastered the economic crisis well – as an example for how well the austerity policy prescribed by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund works. The country’s economy has indeed recovered slightly after a dramatic slump. But since the crisis started in 2008, young people have been emigrating in droves – and not all of them will return.

For centuries, Ireland was poor and an emigration country. But when the economic boom started in the 90s and the island became the “Celtic Tiger”, there were, for the first time in history, more immigrants than emigrants. Some were foreigners from countries like Poland, some were Irishmen returning from their exile. Then the crisis hit, and the proportions turned again. “Old patterns are reasserting themselves”, Mary Gilmartin, a migration researcher at Maynooth University, says. Almost everyone in Ireland knows emigration stories from their parents’ or grandparents’ generation, she says.

Joe Byrne – beard, frameless glasses, sophisticated language – is 26 years old, he just finished his PhD in Chemistry in Dublin. When he and his friends finished college in 2010, job prospects in Ireland were lousy. Not long before, a hiring ban had been introduced for the public sector. Youth unemployment went up from nine to over 30 percent during the crisis; today, it is at 24 percent. The rate of young people who are neither in school nor have a job went up from twelve to 22 percent and is now, at 18 percent, still one of the highest in the EU.

“There was a change between the emigration behaviour of graduates immediately before us and my age group”, Joe Byrne says. For the older graduates, emigration was about “temporary escapism” or about a specific job, he says, whereas for the younger ones it was “the most obvious solution” to avoid unemployment. Byrne says that emigration has always been part of the Irish experience, “though we were brought up to believe we would be the first generation not forced to leave our shores by economic necessity.”

Even for those who have a job it can be difficult to earn a living. Migration researcher Mary Gilmartin says that many more people work part-time or have precarious jobs today than a few years ago. The IMF calculated in 2013 that almost a quarter of the Irish are either unemployed or underemployed.

Product designer Joanna Jakma is one of those who left. “After graduating in 2011, I was getting four emails a day saying: Thanks, but no thanks”, Jakma says. When she lost her job, for which she was over-qualified anyway, she started searching abroad and found a position in the Netherlands in early 2015. Within two and a half weeks, she and her boyfriend sold some of their belongings, packed up the rest and moved, in a crammed car, to a village on the Dutch coast. “After all these years I’m finally working as a designer”, Jakma says. “But financially it’s tough especially given my partner struggles to get work with his lack of Dutch. And saying goodbye to my mum breaks my heart every time.” Nevertheless, Jakma is planning to stay in the Netherlands long term.

In a 2013 poll, only two out of ten emigrants believed they would move back to Ireland within the next three years. The number of people returning has dropped dramatically, researcher Mary Gilmartin says. She thinks this is even more important for the country than the rising number of emigrants. It is also what makes people like Joanna Jakma different from all the young Germans who leave to explore the world. While most of them do an Erasmus semester, an internship or a Master’s degree abroad, the Irish often leave their country without a date for their return. The population statistics illustrate this: Nowhere in Europe the number of people aged 20 to 29 dropped as sharply between 2008 and 2014 as it did in Ireland. Due to emigration and declining birth rates, it sank by five percent in the EU and by 21 percent in Greece and Spain. In Ireland, it dropped 28 percent.

“Some people argue emigration has positive effects because people would be unemployed otherwise”, Mary Gilmartin says. But, she says, the people who leave are those the country needs most – young people full of energy and creativity. Unlike the 19th century emigrants, they are also well-educated: According to a study, 62 percent of emigrants have a college degree, compared to about 40 percent in the general population. Gilmartin says you can feel the effects in small towns and villages: shops closing, rural communities being “hollowed out”. Plus, she says, austerity has led to a cutting back of public services, particularly in rural areas. She says the elderly are more dependent on support by younger family members now – but many of those have left. Gilmartin says that Ireland is far from having mastered the crisis all that well. She says homelessness, long-term unemployment and suicide rates have all risen. Before the crisis, 22.5 percent of young children in Ireland were at risk of poverty; in 2013, it was 31.4 percent. “On the surface, Ireland might look okay”, Gilmartin says, “but in the lived experience, it isn’t.”

Joe Byrne has noticed a new phenomenon lately. “There is a second wave of emigration”, he says. He sees some emigrants return, but many of those who stayed, he says, feel they missed out on an opportunity for new experiences, so they leave Ireland now. Sociologists call this chain migration: “People leave because their friends are leaving”, Mary Gilmartin says.

A country hollowed out