Review of The Irish Abortion Journey


The Irish Abortion Journey, 1920-2018 by Lindsey Earner-Byrne and Diane Urquhart

Irish Abortion Journey

Palgrave, 2019. ISBN 978-3-030-03854-0 Hardcover €51.99

ISBN 978-3-030-03855-7 eBook € 41.64

Reviewed by Katherine Side

The Irish Abortion Journey 1920-2018, by historians Lindsey Earner-Byrne and Diane Urquhart, is a timely reflection on the history of abortion in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Their title repeats that well-worn phrase that references the silent travel of pregnant people in response to legal, judicial, medical, and practical restrictions; however, in this instance, the phrase traces the journey in changed public attitudes towards abortion in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. These changes are documented quantitatively, in the Republic of Ireland by sociologist Margret Fine-Davis (2015), and in Northern Ireland in a range of survey instruments, including the Northern Ireland Life and Timessurveys, in 2016 and 2018.

The book’s Introduction provides an historical outline of abortion laws. I read it alongside historian Cara Delay’s Irish Women and the Creation of Modern Catholicism 1850-1950, which explores the various roles of Catholic women, including those who conformed to and who countered the Catholic Church (2019). There is some temporal overlap, but to the exclusion of consideration of Northern Ireland. The brevity of Earner-Byrne and Urquhart’s introduction is enriched by Delay’s examination of the Catholic Church’s preoccupation with gendered sexual morality. Earner-Byrne and Urquhart are careful historians; their analysis does not slide into the poorly constructed and weakly supported argument that the history of abortion law in Ireland (and Northern Ireland) can be explained wholly by institutional Catholicism. They detail  the “striking similarities” between Catholic morality and the main Protestant denominations in constructing atmospheres of secrecy and shame (11), the influence of unrelenting state paternalism, poor living and health conditions, and class prejudices in Dublin and Belfast as factors that shaped the circumstances of those who sought abortions.

The authors trace the century-long “moral migration,” from the 1920s until the 1960s, from Ireland and Northern Ireland. This was an involuntary pathway for those who sought abortion, chose maternity outside of marriage, objected to repeated pregnancies, and/or who escaped confinement in “an exploitative environment working for free” while women’s “children languished in institutions dying at truly staggering rates” (13). Earner-Byrne and Urquhart do not paint the responses to serious issues, such as infanticide and poor maternal and infant health, with a sweeping brush. They acknowledge important pockets of dissent, such as the views held by Dublin-born gynaecologists, Bethel Solomons, and his son, Michael Solomons whose views on maternal health and contraception marked them as health care professionals whose primary concerns were for their patients’ health.

Earner-Byrne and Urquhart trace the uneven accessibility of contraception to avoid forced maternity and/or abortion in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The eventual availability of contraception, largely in response to women’s collective demands, reinforced the model of medical control (62). The introduction of the Abortion Act (UK, 1967) was pivotal because it offered an alternative to “backstreet abortions” (47) and their ill effects, also documented by Cliona Rattigan, Leanne McCormick, Mark Benson, and Cara Delay; and, it offered activists a model of future legal possibility. In the context of their discussions about “acts of desperation” (43), it is useful to recall that most abortions remain criminalised in Northern Ireland and that people continue to be prosecuted by the state for using medical abortion pills and for supporting their use by others. Although much is made of the improved availability of abortion in the Republic of Ireland, there are still some circumstances, under the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act(2018), where abortion is a criminal offence, and medication abortion pills, legal for self-administration, continue to be confiscated by state authorities.

The authors’ analysis is strongest in relation to historical data. An historical analysis that do not divide the island politically strengthen their claims that the history of abortion, and conservative attitudes towards women’s sexuality, are intertwined closely across these jurisdictions. However, the authors’ analyses are weaker in chapters five through seven that examine contemporary abortion reform. Many contemporary reforms hinge on important legal judgments that are glossed over for their details and significance. This oversight may be because the complexity of these circumstances cannot be fully explicated in short chapters. It may also reflect the fact that the authors rely almost wholly on journalistic accounts, published in newspapers, about difficult legal cases. This overlooks contributions by an influential body of socio-legal scholars, including Máiréad Enright, Fiona de Londras, Ruth Fletcher, Siobhán Mullally, and Emilie Cloatre. Earner-Byrne and Urquhart also minimalize analysis of contemporary advocacy efforts in both locations. For instance, the book’s chronology of dates and important events focuses disproportionately on legal judgments, constitutional amendments, and legislation, to the exclusion of advocacy groups, their actions, and influence. The exclusion of the formation of the Abortion Rights Campaign in the Republic of Ireland, in 2012, and the activities of Alliance for Choice, formed in Northern Ireland in 1997, are conspicuous and unfortunate exclusions that may shape how future histories of abortion reform are remembered.

Reforms in the Republic of Ireland were implemented as this volume was published and the possibility of significant legal reform in Northern Ireland has only come about since its publication. The authors credit public storytellers in the Republic of Ireland with influencing and altering public opinion and claim the same is required for legal change in Northern Ireland. What, then, might they make of the fact that the North’s most optimistic prospects for legal change have come from the actions of the Westminster Parliament?

This well-researched history is especially valuable for its all-island analysis and the potential it offers to “diversify” complex understandings of abortion reform (141).

Katherine Side      Memorial University


Works Cited

Delay, Cara. Irish Women and the Creation of Modern Catholicism 1850-1950. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019.

Fine-Davis, Margret.Gender Roles in Ireland: Three Decades of Attitude Changes. Abingdon: Palgrave, 2015.

Katherine Side is Professor, Department of Gender Studies, Memorial University and author of Patching Peace: Women’s Civil Society Organizing in Northern Ireland (2015). Her research on abortion reform in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland appears in scholarly publications, Gender, Place and Culture, Human Rights in Ireland, and Social Politics, and in popular publications, Herizons(Canada) and Women’s News(Northern Ireland).