‘Nice Irish girls don’t have sex’ is the old idea at the heart of historic abortion rights battle

Even if abortion is legalised in Ireland, this mindset must be challenged if women are to fully access their reproductive rights.

Pro-choice activists at London’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, March 2017. Photo: Dmitry Dzhus/Flickr. CC-BY-2.0 Some rights reserved.

Nice Irish girls don’t have sex. This is what I gathered growing up as a young woman in Ireland, at school in my local convent in Longford and at university in Dublin. If you had sex, you’d better be in a long-term relationship. Even then, you’d struggle to go on the pill because that would involve admitting to a stranger you were having sex outside marriage.

It’s safe to say that the fear of becoming pregnant was always there – that, and developing an STI that would leave you infertile for life. Why? Because sex was bad. That’s what you were taught during sex-ed class at school. If you were ‘at it’ and fell pregnant, you only had yourself to blame. As for having an abortion, well, that was the greatest sin of all.

I never had an abortion but in my early twenties a very dear friend said that she needed one. We discussed her options in a clandestine meeting, down a dark lane in a Dublin suburb. At six weeks pregnant, she decided on a termination. She booked flights to the UK, took a couple of days off of work and we didn’t speak about it again for 12 years.

Looking back, that was the moment when I became unreservedly and unapologetically pro-choice. I might not have realised which amendment to the Irish constitution forced my friend on a plane that day, but I knew something was very wrong with how our country was treating this ‘nice girl,’ my friend, who made a very difficult choice.

“That was the moment when I became unreservedly and unapologetically pro-choice.”

She hadn’t been raped; she hadn’t learned that the foetus wouldn’t survive outside the womb. She wasn’t ready to be a mother. As proprietor of her body, and governor of her life, that decision was rightfully hers. But she was left alone, ostracised, and feeling that she had become one of Ireland’s shameful exports.

Activists use chalk on pavement to show the number of Irish women who have travelled to England for safe and legal abortions since 1983. London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign protest, September 2017. Photo: Steve Eason/Flickr. CC-BY-2.0 Some rights reserved.

Ireland will go to the polls on 25 May to vote on whether it should repeal the 8th amendment, which prohibits a woman from having an abortion in Ireland unless her life is in direct danger. A woman who terminates a pregnancy faces 14 years in jail, even in cases of rape or when the foetus isn’t viable.

These are some of the most draconian abortion laws in the world. Repealing the 8th amendment is a subject that I speak about regularly to Irish family members and friends. Not many people that I’m close to would dare say that abortion shouldn’t be allowed in ‘extreme’ cases but some are hesitant when it comes to ‘regular’ abortions.

Why is this? I’m afraid it’s that dirty word again: sex.

Ireland has an uncomfortable relationship with sex – in particular women having sex outside of marriage. International readers might be forgiven for thinking that we’re a progressive little country; we were the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote, after all. But we still have a long way to go.

“I’m afraid it’s that dirty word again: sex. Ireland has an uncomfortable relationship with sex.”

I distinctly recall the double standards between men and women at university. Many young guys would happily engage in casual sex yet they’d be fiercely opposed to bringing home the same women to their Irish mothers. It would be much more palatable to take home a ‘nice girl’, wife-material that you could proudly take to mass on a Sunday.

Sexual promiscuity amongst Irish women, meanwhile, was shunned. Dare I say it, these ‘fallen women’ were even subject to slut-shaming from some of the more obnoxious young men at university. This was our normal.

The upcoming referendum is also about the way in which Ireland views women, sex and reproduction. Historically, Ireland has an appalling track record in these areas. Here we are again, in the 21st century, debating how we legislate over Irish women’s bodies.

And even if the 8th amendment is repealed, this ‘nice Irish girls don’t have sex’ mindset must be tackled if women are to fully access their reproductive rights. There are examples, including from Italy, where abortion has been legalised for years but can still be difficult to access because of widespread ‘conscientious objection’ by medical staff.

My covert whisperings, in that dark alley in Dublin many years ago, taught me that sex, pregnancy and abortion should not be our shameful secrets. We are not as conservative as we once were; many of us are certainly not as religious. If the women of Ireland are to be treated as equal humans, the 8th amendment must be unequivocally repealed.

I will not be voting in the upcoming referendum as I lost my voting privileges when I became resident in the UK. I will however be examining, scrutinising and watching our little country from afar, as it makes the greatest decision in my living memory.

Shaunagh Connaire is an Emmy nominated and duPont-Columbia award winning journalist and filmmaker. She’s worked on over 40 films for Channel 4 Unreported World and Dispatches and has produced documentaries for BBC & PBS Frontline. She’s originally from Ireland.



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