2019 Reflections on my Thesis on the Abortion Debate in Irish Print Media
by Rachael Hussey
I am Rachael, a journalism Masters Degree graduate from Dublin, now working with The Book Hub Publishing Group. I moved to Galway four years ago while finishing my Masters degree to start a new life, joining my husband in the west of Ireland. It took a while to adapt to the pace of life here in Galway but, over time, I have grown to appreciate all the wonderful aspects of living in a small city, a location filled with fantastic restaurants, beautiful landscapes and friendly people! This weird and wonderful place, full of culture and exciting energy, is where I now call home and where I have built my own little family, among the sea air and the cobbled streets.
In 2018, I had my first child, my wonderful daughter, Sophia Lily. I have been adapting to motherhood and navigating through this amazing and challenging chapter in my life and learning a lot along the way. In 2016, while living in Galway, I completed my thesis which focused on the Irish broadsheet newspaper coverage of the abortion debate, following the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015. While a lot has changed in my life since 2015-2016, I have always had a liberal viewpoint on the topic of abortion. While on a personal level I do not feel particularly comfortable around abortion, I very much appreciate that I come from a stable background and whatever circumstance I could end up in, I would have support and I know this is not the case for everyone. I cannot put myself in another person’s position and what their situation might be and that is why I strongly believe in giving the individual the right to make these decisions themselves.
I believe that while respecting different opinions, it is more useful to overlook one’s own personal feelings when reviewing these issues. To look at it from a detached sociological point of view, one can be more open and more able to look at what is optimal overall for Irish society, however a topic like abortion lends itself to strong opinions and high emotions on both sides.
I hoped to find the same-sex marriage referendum would lead to a surge in coverage of abortion law articles. With the theme of progression being carried on after the success of marriage equality for all, I aspired to see if this zeitgeist, of a new and more tolerant Ireland, could be found in its largest newspapers and to explore how the topic of abortion would be both engaged with and reported. I wanted to reflect on Ireland’s post-colonial, historically Catholic background and how this has fed into Irish law, particularly in a medical and educational context. I would have loved to explore this in greater depth along with how social media and changes in new media in recent years have played such a big part towards changing the social, political and moral landscape of Ireland. Access to information and cultural differences and opinions on a more global scale have impacted Ireland greatly as a society and as the Catholic religious pull wanes, we, as a country, are moving towards a much greater divide between church and state than we have historically experienced. Now, I reflect on my findings after the dust has settled, the abortion law has been passed and recently legislation in the North of Ireland has also been passed. As a recent first time Mother, I will analyse the research in a 2019 context and on a more personal level.
When I started writing my thesis in 2015 I was not yet a Mother but I hoped for the sake of future Irish women and for any children I might one day have, that there would be changes made to Irish law surrounding abortion and women’s autonomy over their bodies. As I embarked on my dissertation, I was reflecting on the newly passed law regarding same-sex marriage. The changed atmosphere in Dublin, where I was living at the time, was palpable. With optimism and hope for progression in the air, I anticipated and wished this energy would encourage greater coverage of the abortion debate, to change Irish law and finally enter the 21st Century regarding female’s reproductive freedom. While both pro-life and pro-choice agendas look out for human rights in their own way, for me, I felt to give a woman the right to decide her own fate and to trust her judgement over her own body is very important.
As I expected, there were many articles relating to the abortion debate in the month following the same-sex marriage referendum. In the month prior to the same-sex marriage referendum, April 2015, there were no articles published on the abortion debate from The Irish Times or The Irish Examiner but in June 2015, there were 19 published in The Times and 11 in The Examiner. This surge in content displays how the momentum of the same-sex marriage referendum encouraged more progressive writing on Irish rights and laws, particularly in this case, with women in print media.
Out of all the articles published, only one from The Irish Times and two from The Irish Examiner could be analysed as specifically pro-life biased. The context of frame analysis and how the media frame a narrative is relevant in two ways here, by choosing to predominantly focus on liberal, pro-choice articles, it can influence the public in to a more liberal way of thinking as that is the main agenda portrayed, yet the fact that these articles are well received and the papers continue to sell, also reflects the mindset and political position of current Irish society.
Two large newspapers in Ireland focused heavily on a pro-choice argument following the same-sex marriage referendum, revealing a level of empathy and interest in the pro-choice argument. The pro-choice focus from large media groups could be seen as persuasive by saturating the media with a pro-choice standpoint. In my dissertation, I analysed ‘framing’ in the media through author Denis McQuail and his Journalism and Society text. His work focuses on the process from media outlets of choosing what topics are covered and what angle is used. And in turn this ‘frames’ the narrative for the readers and society. McQuail looks at the influence journalists have over society and explains how serious this role is. ‘The media systems in which it is embedded play an intimate part in the social, political and economic life of a modern society and it would be unrealistic to expect otherwise, despite the guarantee of press freedom.’ McQuail (2013: 148)
While the abortion debate has been hotly debated for years, even decades in Ireland and the media, the level of articles published echoes the sentiment of the time. If Ireland could successfully pass a referendum on same-sex marriage, surely we could do the same for legal abortion? Historically speaking, religion has played such a large role in Irish society, particularly in post-colonial Ireland where a very dogmatic approach to religion has resulted from a need to differentiate ourselves from our colonisers. Ireland wanted to distance itself and create a narrative of an Ireland of tradition, language, Catholicism and family. I detailed this extensively in my thesis and how this all ties into our laws and education and the impact this has had medically with the Church being involved heavily in all these areas. Tom Inglis was my main source when looking at Ireland on a religious and historical level.
There has been a substantial move away from Catholicism in recent years due to greater access to other views and cultures through mediums like the internet and international television broadcasts, an increase in education as well as diversity in Ireland and multiculturalism.Ireland’s historical relationship surrounding women and reproductive rights was an important theme discussed and developed throughout my thesis along with Ireland’s historical relationship with women and their representation as ‘Mother Ireland’ and femininity and Ailbhe Smyth’s work was a point of reference frequently. Through the coverage of the abortion debate in print media it is clear to see how these historical themes are slowing fading away in place for progression and equality in Irish society. The selection of articles chosen to be published for hundreds of thousands of Irish readers, signifies a society where women’s voices are heard and a new representation of an emergence of what it is to be an Irish woman in the 2010s.
Over the past 30 years, cases have come up and received nationwide coverage from the media such as The X Case and the 14th Amendment, Savita Halappanavar and The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act and P.P -v- Health Service Executive. When scandals like these occur, there is a surge in the coverage of abortion laws in Ireland and these cases have caused such outrage and received so much coverage, they have sometimes led to legal changes in Ireland. It was not until 2018 however, that the legalisation of abortion in Ireland went to referendum and the 8th Amendment was repealed. I feel that the successful achievement of the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 had a big part to play in the abortion referendum, people could see what can be achieved through active campaigning and effective use of social media to promote and educate its citizens. Groups like Repeal the 8th and Together for Yes campaigned tirelessly to promote the amendment to abortion laws.
Recent cases such as the Savita Halappanavar case in 2012 and the Plaintiff v. Health Service Executive in 2014 have, in part, led Ireland to this point where there is a push for media coverage and repeal of the 8th Amendment from the Irish constitution.The Savita Halappanavar case concerns a woman, Savita who died in Galway University Hospital from septic shock after not receiving an abortion while miscarrying. Her life was not deemed a high enough risk in accordance with the law and this led to The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 being passed whereby:
…if there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life from a physical illness, and in their reasonable opinion (being an opinion formed in good faith which has regard to the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable) that risk can only be averted by carrying out the medical procedure. (Protection of life during pregnancy act 2013)
In December 2014, an unidentified clinically dead female, ‘N.P’ was kept alive through life support because she was pregnant despite the foetus having little chance of survival according to medical experts. Despite the woman being subsequently taken off life support, this case received much attention in the media due to the problematic nature of ambiguous laws ‘Due to concerns by doctors at the Dublin hospital about the legal implications of her pregnancy, arising from the State’s obligation to vindicate the right to life of the unborn in Article 40.3.3. – the 1983 anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution – she has remained on somatic life-support treatment.’(Carolan, 2014, Irish Times article).
Whenever cases like those mentioned occurs, there is a massive increase in coverage of the abortion debate and it has sometimes led to changes in laws but up to recently, abortion still remained illegal for the most part. In 2018 the abortion referendum finally took place and I found it was very had to predict how the voting was going to go. Giving a person the right to make a personal decision for their own life in my opinion, makes you a level-headed, compassionate person and your own feeling surrounding abortion or whether you or your partner would have one should not cloud your judgment on another person’s life choices.
While everyone is entitled to their own opinions I believe it is important to trust women to make the right decision for themselves. Burying our head in the sand and sending women across the pond to the UK, might make some people feel better about this controversial topic, but it is an abjectation of responsibility. Legalising it makes it safer and more economical for those dealing with non-viable pregnancies or fetal fatal abnormalities or for someone who simply cannot deal with their pregnancy for whatever reason. It also avoids unnecessary hardship in terms of women’s lives and health. We know from the evidence that some women take illegal abortion pills out of desperation, risking their lives by purchasing untraceable medication on the Internet where there is no objective way of checking the safety of such products.
This subject makes people uncomfortable and awkward, yet how uncomfortable do they think it is for a couple who are facing the decision of ending the pregnancy or giving birth to a stillborn child and having to travel abroad for this? To check-in at the airport, pack their bags, book a hotel and travel back distraught and in pain with no baby to look forward to.
I had recently given birth when the referendum took place. While I was happy with my newborn baby and so grateful to have had a healthy child, I reflected on others who were not so lucky. I thought about my daughter’s future, about the kind of Ireland she would grow up in, if she was in a difficult position, would I want her to have the freedom to receive medical treatment, to have control of her body and decisions? Absolutely! For her and other women in Ireland, I hoped the referendum would pass the legalisation of abortion in Ireland.
Of course, these personal reflections and opinions were not documented in my thesis and I grew frustrated sifting through articles and information, reading and watching heartbreaking personal stories unfold. I found it did take an emotional toll on me as a young woman who advocates for women’s rights. While we might not have it ‘as bad’ as other countries and groups of people, that does not mean we should just be grateful that it ‘could be worse’ or not strive for better. Just as with the same-sex marriage debate, I struggled to understand how some people did not want to let individuals decide how to live their own life. The level of control certain groups desired to exert over others, made me question if we live in a genuinely democratic country? With both referenda passed, this to me, reflects our rights and the fact that the majority ruled in this manner, really represents hope for Ireland and its future. I see current Irish society as tolerant and compassionate, with an understanding of choice, to stand up for those who are not as dominant in the public arena. It makes me hopeful for even more change and for us to evolve and grow in other areas such as children’s rights, racism, sexism in the workplace and migrant’s rights.
The fact that The Irish Times and The Irish Examiner gave their platform largely to a more pro-choice stance is significant and does show a larger example of Irish society and culture in the 21st Century. Two of the biggest broadsheets in Ireland have given the floor to the predominantly pro-choice arena. While the articles were all well-articulated, backed up with sources and were level headed arguments in my opinion, it is interesting that the media were openly so one-sided, showing how far the Catholic Church has fallen in the context of people’s thinking and ideologies and how much certain sections of the media are able to propel and maintain a particular perspective through framing. The media is no longer afraid to speak out and they are not controlled by religious thinking or afraid of a backlash as they were in past eras.
While only this October abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland, until March 2020 women will continue to have to travel overseas to England to obtain a legal abortion. According the Northern Ireland Office, in the interim period, abortions in cases of “fatal or serious fetal anomaly” can be carried out in Northern Ireland up to 28 weeks. Each will be treated on a case-by-case basis, with a consultant taking into consideration the mental and physical needs of the patient.
It is perhaps surprising that despite being part of the UK, in Northern Ireland, abortion was criminal for longer than the Republic but with religion playing such a strong position historically and to this day, this will have no doubt impacted the differing in law and attitude in the NOI comparatively to the rest of the UK. The disbanding of Northern Ireland government and a complicated political background has no doubt impacted abortion laws regarding the North.
I am interested to see as the years go by, what changes we might see in the Republic of Ireland around these difficult topics and what interests me the most is to see how the political, social and legal terrain lies when my daughter is a teenager and a young adult. Will it shock her to know when her Mother was young, abortion was illegal and gay people could not legally mary? I hope that by the time she understands these matters, Ireland and the rest of the world is a more tolerant and fair place and that my daughter does not feel the restraints many generations before her previously experienced. While I have matured and become a mother, my personal feelings surrounding abortion have not changed my beliefs that it is a woman’s right to choose and that is where my convictions stay. There is always more work to be done but right now, it looks like we are heading in the right direction as far as I am concerned. As an ever evolving universe let us hope the future continues on a path of tolerance and mutual understanding on these very complex matters.
Rachael Hussey, December, 2019.
*Rachael Hussey is a consultant with The Book Hub Publishing Group.