Women rights in Ireland: a debate which remains contencious

NEWS - Women’s rights in Ireland have steadily been more and more asserted in the last decades, and progresses, while slow, have undoubtedly been made, thanks to political action, new legislations, and the weight of the public opinion. However, Ireland remains sorely lacking in certain areas: cultural and religious norms still keep Ireland from giving women the same rights most of their European counterparts can freely enjoy.



A long term process: the impact of the 70s on the reproductive rights of women

Ireland has been aligned on the United Kingdom’s position all throughout the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1918, women were already allowed to vote (to draw the comparison, French women had to wait until 1945 to acquire this particular right). It bears to say that they were however in no way equal to men: they had to wait until age 30 and had to prove qualifications, such as a university background; whereas men’s only requirement was to be 21. True equality in this area was reached in 1922, but Ireland took a step back towards the end of the thirties, as the conservative party came to power. Prime Minister Eamon De Valera was intent on going back on fundamental rights, such as working after marriage, in its 1937 Constitution. At that point, contraception and divorce remained illegal, and abortion was obviously still absolutely unthinkable, like in most European countries.

If the first decades of the nineteenth century were essential for women’s rights because they were now able to access the right to vote, it’s particularly the 70s which marked a real shift and enabled them to acquire the social and legal position they now enjoy in the country. If abortion remained illegal, a fact which was reinforced in 1983 by an amendment in the Irish Constitution which banned abortions on request, the Health Family Planning Act, passed in 1979, allowed men and women to use contraceptives, though they had to be prescribed. It is not until 1993 that condoms could be bought without any kind of prescription.

Towards more equality between men and women?

The 70s were also crucial in enabling women to enjoy the same rights as men, though the two sexes remain quite unbalanced. In particular, the Family Home Protection Act of 1976 further protected women from their husbands, who were, up until that point, the sole and unique ones to take decisions, without the need of obtaining the consent of their wives.
However, women had to wait until the 90s to reach the next, more extensive, equality step. In 1990, marital rape was deemed illegal; in 1996, divorce was at long last authorized in the country. Women also acquired a greater visibility in politics, as Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland in 1990.

The feminism movement, and in particular what became known as the second-wave of feminism in Ireland, had a crucial influence on this shift of the country’s policies towards women. In 1970, the action known as “The Contraceptive Train”, launched by a group of feminist members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, had a strong mediatic impact: they travelled from Dublin to Belfast, in Northern Ireland, in order to purchase contraceptives and bring them back to the Republic of Ireland. This action was deemed a “landmark” in the recognition of the issue of women’s reproductive rights. It was indeed a strong public statement, a “sensational publicity coup” , as the members took care of being accompanied by cameras, journalists and photographers. Reproductive rights were propelled at the forefront of political discussions and preoccupations, and the taboo surrounding it was successfully broken, as Nell McCafferty, leader of the protest herself, explained in her following interviews.

Ireland and women’s rights: a persisting issue even though the international community is pressuring countries to work against discriminations

Though the Republic of Ireland has come a long way, issues persist and equality is far from being attained, particularly on highly controversial topics which pervade on the religious, such as abortion.
As women’s rights have become a globally discussed issue, the international pressure on countries to work towards equality has become greater. Ireland, as a member of the European Union and the United Nations, has pledged to work on it and has signed several major international and regional conventions, such as the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discriminations Against Women), the Beijing Platform for Action, an international agenda for the empowerment of women, and the European Commission Strategy for Equality between Men and Women.

However, Ireland has been widely criticized for its inability to reach the goals they had pledged to. In fact, their report on women’s rights in the country, due in 2007 to the Commission of CEDAW, has been more than eight years late, a delay severely criticized by the UN. Mark Kelly, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, has stated that the Republic of Ireland was not a State in which “the autonomy and bodily integrity of women is respected” . 

The case of Amanda Mellet: another landmark in women’s rights in Ireland?

Indeed, abortion, for instance, is still penalized in Ireland. Amanda Mellet, who enjoys both American and Irish nationalities, was unable to interrupt her pregnancy in 2011 even though her fetus was presenting signs of a mortal malformation. The Center for Reproductive Rights has taken her case and filed an official complaint to the UN Committee for Human Rights.
As a response, the Committee has recently taken an unprecedented decision by stating that Irish laws forbidding and punishing women for voluntarily interrupting their pregnancies violate human rights. This is the first time an international organ of defense of human rights deems that a State has violated human rights by forbidding abortion, and therefore represents an historical step in the protection of women’s rights. According to John Dalhuisen, Director of the Europe and Central Asia programs of Amnesty International, “the decision taken the 9th June 2016 by the UN Committee of Human Rights is an historic decision for Ireland and has a widespread global impact. Forbidding, and therefore criminalizing abortion has been considered as a violation of human rights by itself. It is discriminatory and submits women to a cruel, inhuman and degrading position. Ireland must take this into account”.

Ireland is not the only country in Europe still criminalizing abortion: Poland has also some of the strictest legislations in Europe, allowing only abortions if the pregnancies are a result of rape, incest, or if the child would be born severely ill. Far from going back on it, Poland is currently considering a complete ban on abortion, on the impulse of bishops from the Catholic Church. In that case, women could not interrupt their pregnancies even if the fetus would be actively endangering their lives. This consideration has provoked ire in the country, and many protests have been organized these last few months. Hopes are that the decision of the UN Committee for Human Rights will have indeed a widespread, lasting impact, and will accentuate pressure on countries to enable women to access autonomy and full rights of their bodies.

Léa Guinet, Coordinator of projects at CIPADH



Mary Minihan, “Laying the tracks to liberation : the original contraceptive train”, The Irish Times, 28th October 2014. Available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/laying-the-tracks-to-liberation-the-original-contraceptive-train-1.1979907  

“The Irish Women who Fought to Legalise Contraception”, BBC News, 11th May 2016. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36249697 

Conall O’Fatharta, Ireland’s Human Rights Record : Women’s rights are ‘not respected here’”, the Irish Examiner, 23rd March 2015. Available at: http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/irelands-human-rights-record-womens-rights-are-not-respected-here-319882.html

Amnesty International, « L’ONU déclare que l’interdiction totale de l’avortement viole les droits fondamentaux », 9th June 2016. Available at : https://www.amnesty.ch/fr/pays/europe-asie-centrale/irlande/docs/2016/onu-decision-historique-interdiction-totale-avortement-viole-droits-fondamentaux