– Sarah McCarthy writes about that momentous moment in Ireland’s abortion history.

Twenty-one years ago, this cartoon appeared on the front page of the Irish Times. It encapsulated perfectly the grotesque actions of the State at that time, and the striking image haunted a divided nation.

It’s hard not to know the story of X by now. She was a fourteen year old rape victim, who had been assaulted by a friend of her parents. When she became pregnant as a result of this abuse, her parents brought her to England to obtain a termination. While there, they inquired with the Gardaí as to whether the aborted foetus could be used as evidence in a trial against her rapist. The information was passed on to the Attorney General, who issued an injunction which required her to return immediately to Ireland and forego the procedure. Her parents complied and brought her back to the country, still pregnant.

The Attorney General was able to exercise such power over this family, because the Irish Constitution recognises “the equal right to life of the unborn…with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”. Surrendering control of women’s bodies to the State, the 8th Amendment was passed in 1983 and remains in Irish law to this day.


However, Miss X maintained that if forced to carry on with the pregnancy, she would end her own life. This was confirmed by a clinical psychologist. When the injunction was tried before a court, the Judge ruled that the right to life of the unborn must not be interfered with, and extended the period of the injunction to nine months. Miss X was being held captive by the Irish State. However, in March, the Supreme Court ruled that the risk of suicide constituted a significant threat to her life, and permitted her to travel for an abortion (she miscarried before she could exercise this right).

Once the Supreme Court made this ruling, it became Irish law – theoretically. However, over the 21 years since this judgement was made successive Irish Governments have failed to introduce legislation to reflect this decision. They have tried to reverse the decision by twice putting it to the people in a referendum. Both times, the Irish people stood by the ruling. I’m a twenty-one year old woman. For my whole life, this highly restricted right to an abortion has existed in the abstract, but it has yet to be implemented in real terms. The lack of clarity on when a woman has a right to an abortion in Ireland is genuinely shocking, the fact that they’ve been able to get away with it is unbelievable.

Except, it’s not really. Not when you think about all the other things they’ve gotten away with. The over-night bank guarantee, the recent Groundhog Day stunt of more over-night shenanigans consigning us to decades of debt, the relentless austerity while they hand over billions to unsecured bondholders. The lack of action on abortion in Ireland is just one manifestation of the control of the patriarchal capitalist State. Only mass, continuous, direct action has a hope of changing it. Of course we also need heaps of consciousness-raising stuff. We’ve a tough battle in breaking through the brain-washing that the Church, schools, and the State have ingrained in generation after generation. Either way, politely appealing to the heart-strings of our politicians clearly doesn’t work; if it did they would have introduced over-night legislation the night that Savita Halappanavar died.

It has now been over three months since the death of Savita. Still, nothing has been done to change this horrific situation. The current Government is only now drafting legislation, but they continue to drag their heels. The 85% male Dáil doesn’t seem too concerned that more women could die in the meantime.

The moral of this little history lesson? Until this battle is over, keep pregnant women away from Ireland.

– Sarah McCarthy