Irish Feminists Still Fighting Church’s Political Influence



When I walked into Dr. Katherine O’Donnell’s Dublin flat, the first thing I saw was a weighty-looking tome resting in the middle of her dining table: Impure Thoughts: Sexuality, Catholicism and Literature in Twentieth-Century Ireland. It’s exactly the kind of book you’d expect to find in the home of a women’s studies professor, and it was a fitting third party to our conversation that afternoon. I’d come to talk to O’Donnell about her country’s women’s movement, and in any discussion of Irish feminism the Church looms large.

The Church also figured prominently in the death of Savita Halappanavar last year, which sparked outrage and focused the world’s attention on women’s rights in Ireland. Halappanavar was admitted to a Galway hospital on October 21st, miscarrying at 17 weeks. She was repeatedly denied the abortion that might have saved her, being told she couldn’t have the procedure because Ireland is a “Catholic country.” The international outcry following her death forced the Irish government to at least appear to reassess its abortion restrictions: In May it announced a bill that seemed to clarify when doctors can perform abortions to save a woman’s life. Lawmakers probably hoped this small concession would deflect political scrutiny, but by then it was too late. The global feminist community had already begun to question what exactly was going on in Ireland.

O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at University College, Dublin, said that the relationship between the Church and Irish feminists has long been a complicating factor in the movement’s ability to enact its agenda. She says the two camps have been fighting over public policy since the 1970s.

“What you see in our Second Wave feminists is a focus against the Church, and the Church’s control of women’s bodies and minds,” she said. “That meant specifically targeting reproductive justice issues. … [But] the unmarried mother was the main social problem, the battleground in the culture war. Feminists were arguing for support so that women could keep their children. And we won.”

Irish feminists in the ‘70s won a lot of those early battles, with an unlikely assist from the government. Even as the women’s movement urged Ireland forward toward gender equity, Irish politicians worked to modernize its policies in order to join the European Union. Modernization often meant disentangling the government from the long arm of the Church’s influence. As proved the case with Church-run “Mother and Baby Homes” that separated unwed mothers from their children, when feminist goals coincided with the government’s agenda the Church was outmatched. O’Donnell said the speed with which the Irish Second Wave accomplished its early objectives is partly due to the fact that Irish progressives were looking for someone to lead them into the next century, and feminists fit the bill:

Feminism pointed the way for how you could think through what a good society would look like outside the discourse of the Catholic Church.

Since the 1980s, and with Ireland a long-standing E.U. member, the influence of Irish feminists has waned. Today they face recruitment and PR challenges similar to what we see in the U.S.; the message young Irish women are getting is that feminism is “over” and its battles have been won. But in a country where abortion is illegal and it takes a minimum of five years to get divorced, there are clearly still obstacles to overcome. Reaching younger women and men with the feminist message has become the focus for several activist groups around the country. The largest of these, the Irish Feminist Network (IFN), is a national organization that acts as a hub for groups doing equality work, with an emphasis on engaging young people. Coordinator Emma Regan said that prior to IFN’s founding in 2010, there were no feminist organizations addressing the needs of Ireland’s younger activists:

When the IFN was set up, there were already a number of feminist organizations in Ireland, however it was felt that they mostly catered for older women. Since that time, many feminist groups of which younger women are active members have sprung up. … We feel there is still a need for this because young women in Ireland are facing some unique challenges. For example, unemployment is extremely high among young women.

While young feminists are facing a different economic landscape than their predecessors did, the IFN’s list of political priorities is similar to that described by O’Donnell: increased political representation, economic equality and, of course, reproductive rights. Abortion access, feminism’s cornerstone policy achievement in the U.S., has yet to be addressed directly by Irish activists. O’Donnell said the lack of leadership on the issue is partly attributable to the cultural influence of Catholicism. She explained that although upwards of 6,000 Irish women travel to the U.K. annually to obtain abortions, there’s such a powerful social stigma attached to the procedure that no one is willing to champion the cause publicly:

Abortion is still a battleground and nobody’s really taking up the battle. Nobody’s really pushing, nobody wants to do that fight. It’s the level of social taboo; hardly any women ever admit to having terminated their pregnancies.

Abortion law is one of the few policy areas in which the E.U. hasn’t pushed Ireland to align itself with the rest of Europe. In the absence of external pressure to reform, the government has so far continued to take its cues from the Church. It will take concerted effort by Irish feminists, perhaps in collaboration with activists in other E.U. nations, to challenge the Church’s authority in this and other political issues fundamental to Irish women’s equality.

UPDATE: Katherine O’Donnell requested a clarification about her statements about the reproductive rights movement in Ireland, and wanted specifically to correct the perception that she believed that there is not an active pro-choice movement in Ireland. Her statements referred to the fact that there was not a critical mass of women who had had abortions who were willing to say publicly that it was the right choice for them. She said:

It’s a huge demand to make of women: to be public about a personal, private decision. As it is now, that decision is made a shameful secret as there is such stigma placed on Irish women who terminate pregnancies.

O’Donnell referred readers to Choice Ireland, Abortion Rights Campaign and Make It Safe and Legal for information on Irish pro-choice activism.

Photo of Irish protestor holding a photo of Savita Halappanavar courtesy of AJstream via Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. William L. Turner says:

    All I have to say is I am moving there! Not that I have an issue with abortion or divorce, I am glad they are still things feminists are fighting about things I really don’t care about. That way they have less resources to advance more radical agendas like we are seeing in Sweden.

  2. Anne Figol says:

    I cannot believe that a first world country, in 2013, continues to have such backward policies toward abortion and women’s rights. Quebec, in Canada, was controlled by the Catholic church until the 1960’s, but now aligns itself more with France and other modern countries (and the rest of Canada) in its approach to abortion, contraception, and feminist ideals. Why does the church continue to have such a hold on Ireland.? Haven’t we all read and heard enough about the damage caused by lack of access to contraception and abortion (and women’s rights overall) in Ireland to wonder why they have failed to advance? Why do women, and men, continue to pretend that the catholic church has relevance in the modern world? It’s most distressing and sad.

  3. “Abortion is still a battleground and nobody’s really taking up the battle. Nobody’s really pushing, nobody wants to do that fight. It’s the level of social taboo; hardly any women ever admit to having terminated their pregnancies.”

    This is not correct.

    There are those who do want this fight, the irish choice network was set up and from there grew the who have been working with politicians, the IFPA and the National Women’s councils and unions to push for a change to the abortion laws here in Ireland.

    Women are starting to tell their stories.
    Women from the group have gone to our houses of parliament, been on prime time talk tv and current affairs programs.

    Personally I have spoken about traveling for an abortion at public meetings and to journalists.
    Things have changed, there is a lot of work being done, some of us are already in this fight and gearing up for what needs to come next after X Case legislation is in place and that is to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution as until that is done we can not legislate for the right to an abortion in the case of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality (which the majority of the Irish people agree with) never mind a woman’s choice.

    If anyone wishes for more information I would suggest they start here:

  4. Many of us in Ireland are pouring a lot of our time, energy and passion in fighting, pushing and speaking up and out about abortion rights. Please see


  5. I’m not sure that it is fair to say feminists haven’t taken up the abortion issue in Ireland. The Make it Safe, Make it Legal campaign has been around since 2006 or so and a number of activists and academics have been working in the area for longer. I was at a pro-choice rally in Galway last weekend! There are lots of reasons why pro-choice activism in Ireland is difficult but the backlash from “pro-life” activists is particularly hateful, which means that it requires a lot of courage and a thick skin to put yourself out there as a target. (Random strangers can also be abusive – one of the organisers last weekend was called a c*nt by a man walking past, an activist standing beside me was verbally abused and shoved by a middle-aged woman.) I wouldn’t criticise feminist activists for not doing enough, I’d criticise the regular people of Ireland who support (more) liberal access to abortion but are too afraid to say so.

  6. Sarah Malone says:

    It’s outrageous to say that “nobody’s really taking up the battle” or that the issue “has yet to be addressed directly by Irish activists” considering the huge amounts of action and organisation from the Abortion Rights Campaign ( which was set up to join together the already large network of people fighting around the country for the right to choose in Ireland, or the Abortion Support Network ( which supports women in financial difficulty travelling to the UK for abortion.

    We may have problems with the church pushing its agenda in Irish politics (among other problems) but what has been said in this article about the issue of pro-choice feminist activism is simply inaccurate. The campaign could certainly always use more support, but it’s difficult to push back against this issue considering the massive amounts of funding the anti-choice movement here receives (strongly suspected from Christian anti-choice groups in the USA)

  7. There’s *definitely* a lot of work to do – but I’m at a loss as to how O’Donnell failed to spot the massive amounts of feminist activity in Ireland over the last year. Perhaps she’s not a fan of facebook and twitter (many aren’t, that isn’t a criticism).

    Huge amounts of excellent work has been done this year (and for many years). Galvinised by Anti-Choice billboards last summer (may 2012) and the death of Savita Halappanavar – the Pro-Choice movement in Ireland came together to form the Abortion Rights Capmaign ( who have been doing sterling work in raising awareness, engaging with local and international media – and providing a counter-point to the American funded ( anti-choice (or no-choice) movement.

    While I can appreciate the frustrations of an activist who has been involved in the struggle for Women’s reproductive in rights for such a long period of time, I feel that it’s entirely unhelpful to frame the issue in these – ‘nobody cares in Ireland, nobody will speak out’ – terms.

    I suggest checking out
    Choice Ireland –
    Doctors for Choice Ireland –
    Terminations for Medical Reasons –
    Unlike Youth Defence I Trust Women to Decide for Themselves –
    And the Abortion Rights Campaign –

    For a start.

  8. Also – I’m not a fan of how O’Donnell places the onus on women who’ve *had* abortions to be the vanguard here. Implying that it’s somehow their duty to tell the world about their private histories.

  9. Cheriel Jensen says:

    My family would like to take a vacation in Ireland. We know there are beautiful things to see and nice people to get to know. But we will not until women can obtain all the care they need to control their reproduction. We will not go to a backward country where women’s vital decisions are blocked by a private group of all male pedophiles.

  10. It is patently untrue that ‘nobody is taking up the battle’. As one of many who has been involved in this issue for a long time I’d suggest the blog author extend her research a little beyond one interviewee if she wants to give an overview of feminism and abortion activism in Ireland today.
    Doctors for Choice is in existence more than ten years. We are just one of the many organisations directly addressing the issue. Progress is being made. It may be convenient to frame the debate only in the context of the Catholic Church but it is uni-dimensional and misses the huge changes in secular Irish society in recent years. Choice activism will prevail and sooner rather than later.

    • Women’s Studies UCD has been centrally involved in reproductive justice and abortion rights in Ireland since its inception in 1989. We have organised many events, submitted to many oireachtas and other hearings, been actively involved in every campaign, written and spoken about abortion, women’s right to choose and reproductive rights. Katherine O’ Donnell’s comments are untrue and unfounded and do not represent in any way the thinking of those working in Women’s Studies in UCD – she is clearly completely out of touch. In fact, just last weekend we were part of organising the Abortion Symposium which included papers from many pro-choice activists, writers and campaigners and focused on further strategies to achieve urgently needed change in legislation and policy. Ursula Barry, Women’s Studies, School of Social Justice UCD.

  11. The Church runs the Country? It’s all over the world the meddling of the Church into the Politic of the States. Here in America they want to do the samething aband abortion and baring women back into the times when men was head of everything his wife childre all was treated as if he owned them but we will stand up for our young women to have the rights to see a doctor and to use birth control pills. Why not let people know that yes you had an abortion , and thank God you had the means and a way of going into another country to do it. Let others know that you are fighting not for you but for those who do not have the means that you have. That would be a good thing don’t you think?

  12. This is the second article I have seen recently by an American journalist who didn’t bother talking to any Irish pro-choice activists and then wrote an article about what they’re “not saying”. It’s very lazy journalism with colonialist undertones (“someone needs to go to those backward countries and teach them how to fight their battles”), magnified here by the implication that all will be solved as soon as the enlightened EU steps in as saviour. Newsflash: abortion is not an EU competence. Please do a little more research on your subject next time.

    • Angela Martinez says:

      That is the problem we have here in America the past few years, investigative journalism is dead and the trend is to publish whatever rubbish you want, as long as you give it an angle of absolute dread, despair and some sense that you’re suddenly alerting the world of a terrible crisis eerily similar to those of decades past. Ireland will now be saved, as this journalist has alerted the world that the oppressed and helpless women in Ireland need to be saved and unhanded by the grips of “The Church”. Oh and a good bit of insinuating that women are brainwashed by “The Church” and I suppose could never be brainwashed by a Big Government, as they ladies are here in the US, you can see by this article how well that’s going. Western feminists answer to the meaning of life is Big Government. You shouldn’t expect anything less than the suggestion that the EU should step in and step it up.

  13. why dont we stop talking about it and start doing something. Women have the power to change anything they want because without us the economy would come to a standstill. What would happen if women striked and stoped going to the shops, restaurants, Gp, etc. the list is endless. Its women that keep all these places going. So the only way to get equality for women without spending a life time trying to get it is to make a stand. Say no to clothes shopping, going to restaurants, jewellery shops etc. until we get what we are long overdue. Women need to stick together its the only way. We need to start with the church. All we have to do is for women to stay out of the church and take your children with you and i would expect a partner to support us. To say that we will only return when women can become priests. Afterall the church would be alot safer place for children if women were in charge . How long do you think before things would change not long i bet because they need us. Like i said its women that make the world go around. So stop talking about it and start acting. If women stick together we can achieve anything

  14. As for abortion no one has a right to tell a women what she can and cant do with her body. It is hard enough going through pregnancy with you are happy with it. Nine months is along time if its an unwanted pregnancy. There are enough unloved and unwanted children in the world without adding to them. The church should have nothing to say about abortion. Do worry if it were men that got pregant it would be a different story. No man should have anything to say about abortion seeing as they have No Idea what women go through. Also we are the ones that have to look after the child for the rest of our lives. So whatever the woman wants its her choice No One elses

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!