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Abortion: Ireland’s past is America’s future

This month, four years ago, media from across the globe descended on the courtyard of Dublin Castle. They traveled to capture the scene of thousands of Irish people celebrating the results of the Irish abortion referendum. A landslide majority had “repealed the 8th” and voted to change the country’s constitution to enable legal recognition of abortion rights for the first time in the state’s history. Generations of families cheered and cried together while politicians from warring parties embraced. Viewers abroad marveled at the displays of pride, rapture, and even love.   

To understand why the referendum result in Ireland prompted such outpourings is to understand the full meaning of the right to abortion. On the one hand, the right ensures that women and pregnant people of reproductive age can terminate unwanted or unsafe pregnancies without legal sanction. On the other, it signifies state recognition that women are equal agents in their societies, deserving of respect for their life choices. The right upends the assumptions that coerce women into predefined gender roles and rejects the seemingly immortal ideologies that accord women a lesser status. It demands that society trust women and that the law affirms their dignity and autonomy.

The Irish abortion referendum celebrated the fullness of the abortion right. We sighed in relief that the days of women making secret journeys to clinics abroad were over. And we cherished the vote’s repudiation of the nation’s historical oppression of women. In stark contrast, on this side of the Atlantic, the highest court in the land seems poised to eviscerate the right. The U.S. Supreme Court appears to be doing all that it can to choke women’s access to abortion and perpetuate the shackling misogyny that ensues.

The leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey beckons us closer to the end of constitutionally protected abortion rights in America. Of course, in terms of pregnant people’s ability to exercise this right, the demise had long been in motion. A constellation of federal and state regulations on everything from abortion funding to required waiting periods and religious refusals have already made Roe’s constitutional protection illusory to millions. An official decision in line with the draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito would expand the already extreme burdens that people face in accessing abortion care, burdens that are acutely shouldered by communities that the country already treats with disdain: women of color, women with migrant status, women in abusive relationships, women with disabilities, LGBT+ persons and women without wealth and status.

The decision also precedes two bleak realities that are eerily reminiscent of Ireland’s pre-repeal past: the criminalization and forced exile of abortion seekers, both of which have already begun.

Because at least 26 states are set to introduce abortion bans once the court’s decision officially comes down, in over 50 percent of the U.S. pregnant people who need abortions will be forced to travel to a state where abortion remains legal. Or they will have to obtain and consume abortion pills at home under the threat of punitive sanction. This mirrors pre-repeal Ireland. Women who sought abortions for any reason other than their imminent death could not legally have one in Ireland. Instead, women typically purchased the cheapest UK-bound flights available or hoped that their disguised packages from Women on Web made it through customs. The law did not, in the majority, force women to give birth to unwanted pregnancies. Nor did it lead to thousands of deathly unsafe abortions as is common in developing countries with abortion restrictions and prevailed in the U.S. before the rights recognized in Roe. But the “options” of travel and pills did not mean that Ireland’s abortion regulation was anything less than totalitarian for pregnant people. Nor will the post-Dobbs landscape offer women any escape from tyranny. 

As Irish women argued at the European Court of Human Rights over 15 years ago, forcing women to leave their home states for legal abortions is “degrading and a deliberate affront to their dignity.” It imposes significant financial and administrative hurdles to accessing needed health care, some of which will be near insurmountable. Women experiencing life or health-threatening pregnancies may be too unwell for interstate travel in many cases. Others will struggle to get the money together to finance their journeys. Women or girls in abusive relationships will be unable to explain the prolonged absences that abortion travel demands.

But even the “rich” and otherwise privileged women who have the resources, health and family support to travel are targeted. In banning abortion, the state communicates to all women and pregnant people that they are reproductive instruments first, and moral agents second. It tells women that they are objects to be controlled rather than citizens free to author their own destiny. And the state openly relays that those who resist will be punished — they will be criminalized or forced beyond borders at significant personal cost and risk to their health and safety. 

Criminalizing women’s decisions about their bodies and their lives rejects women’s humanity in a deeply sinister way. In attempting to usurp women’s agency, these laws impair the status of women as equals. And by inflicting the health risks, financial burdens and pressure of arranging out-of-state travel for the health care of one’s choice, anti-abortion laws express the state’s indifference to women’s suffering.

In Ireland, when we fought to overturn the state’s anti-abortion laws, we fought for a nation that would value women as equals. We fought to free ourselves from the state’s punitive legacy of gender discrimination and distrust. The abortion-rights movement in the U.S. cannot afford to fight for anything less.

Christine Ryan is the legal director of the Global Justice Center where she leads the team’s legal work on abortion rights, gendered approaches to mass atrocities, and feminist multilateralism. Ryan is an international human rights lawyer and gender expert. She previously worked as a human rights adviser with UN Special Procedures and the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, Ireland. She holds a doctorate in law from Duke University.


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