Irish sexual history and the abortion referendum
In May, the people of Ireland are voting on the future of the eighth amendment. This legal framework, regarding the restrictions on abortion, has been in place ever since 1983 and reads: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” (Houses of the Oireachtas 2017: 4). In short: abortion is only permitted to save a woman’s life. This regulation is very unusual in contemporary society. When compared to other European countries, Ireland has the strictest regulation of abortion (Center for Reproductive Rights 2018). Because of the growing discontent among the Irish citizens, the government has chosen to hold a referendum.
If the eighth amendment is repealed, a new legislation has to be set in place. Therefore, advisory committees have been created to make recommendations. In this paper, the recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee (2017) will be reviewed. Furthermore, it will be explained from a sociological perspective why they mark a significant departure from traditional approaches to sexual regulation and control in Irish society. In this paper, the focus will only be on the most significant recommendations, since including all the recommendations made would make it too extensive.
The history of Irish sexuality has proven to be very different from other Western societies (Inglis 2005:1-2). For centuries, Irish sexuality has been marked by a Catholic culture of repressed sexual desire and pleasure, something that has been central to civilization and the creation of social order (ibid:3). Sexual activity was controlled through marriage and was meant for child-bearing only (ibid:4). Over the last fifty years, however, this culture has changed drastically (ibid:3). The departure of traditional approaches also shows in the recommendations made by the committee. For one, it has been recommended that
contraception should be provided free of charge to all who wish to avail of them (Houses of the Oireachtas 2017:14). This is a big step for Ireland since artificial contraception has been banned until 1979 (Inglis 2005:22). A study by Malesevic (2003) shows that the majority of the respondents (university students in Galway) agrees with the statements “Condom use does not have to interfere with sexual spontaneity.” and “The primary purpose of sex is pleasure.” and disagree with the statement “The purpose of sex should be the creation of new life.” (p.110). These results clearly mark a new way of thinking for the generations to come, which matches the statement that Ireland is moving towards a culture of self-indulgence in which the fulfilment of pleasure and desire is emphasized (Inglis 2005:3).
Another recommendation that marks a change in the Irish society, is the proposal to improve sexual health and relationship education (Houses of the Oireachtas, 2017: 14). In the tradition of the Catholic Church, sex and sexuality should not be referred to directly. This stems from a fear of offending or undermining the innocent (Inglis 2005:1). To propose that sex education should be taught since primary school promotes the idea that Ireland is an evolving country. This is also shown in the study by Malesevic (2003). When asked to respond to the statement “Sexual education promotes promiscuity.”, the overwhelming majority seemed to disagree (p.110).
The most striking recommendation, however, is that abortion should be legalized. Up to twelve weeks of pregnancy, women should be able to get an abortion without having to provide a reason (Houses of the Oireachtas, 2017: 11). The view that abortion should be legalized is not shared by the Catholic Church, which encourages its followers to “to work actively towards keeping the right to life in the Constitution” (Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference 2018). The fact that the committee still chooses to advise the opposite, proves that a shift has taken place in Ireland and that the influence of the Catholic Church on the Irish state is evidently declining. This is echoed by the Central Statistics Office, which shows that the percentage of Roman Catholics in Ireland has hit a record low in 2011 (2012: 6). Moreover, the Malesevic study (2003) demonstrates that the majority of the respondents would agree with the statement that “Abortion should be legal.”. However, it must be said, that the responses in this study are still very divided. There are also significant proportions of respondents that disagree with the statement or are undecided about the topic (p.110).
If the Irish people will indeed vote to repeal the eighth amendment will not be known until May. Nonetheless, it can be concluded the traditional approaches to topics regarding sex and sexuality are gradually changing into approaches that would be regarded as more modern. All in all, it can be concluded that Ireland is a country on the move towards a more sexually liberated future.
Center for Reproductive Rights. 2018. “The World’s Abortion Laws.” Retrieved April 1,
Central Statistics Office. 2012. “Profile 7 Religion, Ethnicity and Irish Travellers.”. Retrieved
April 7, 2018
Houses of the Oireachtas. 2017. “Report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of
the Constitution.” Retrieved March 28, 2018
Inglis, Tom. 2005. “Origins and legacies of Irish prudery: Sexuality and social control in
modern Ireland.” Eire-Ireland 40(2):9-37.
Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. 2018. “Two Lives, One Love – pastoral message for
2018 on the right to life.” Retrieved April 7, 2018 (https://www.catholicbishops.ie/2018/03/09/two-lives-one-love-pastoral-message-for-2018-on-the-right-to-life-2/)
Malesevic, Vesna. 2003. “Demonic or Divine? Attitudes towards Sex and Sexuality among
Galway University Students.” Irish Journal of Sociology 12(2):107-120