Amid the public outrage over the death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway, Ireland are the shocked and seething whispers about the alleged reason given to the woman and her husband regarding the denial of her request for an abortion: “This is a Catholic country.” This phrase quite simply implies that Ireland lives under a theocracy, where decisions concerning the health and life of a woman are framed by religion despite the fact that Ireland is religiously pluralistic with a myriad of faiths represented among the population. While the 2011 Irish Census showed that Catholicism is still the most dominant religion in Ireland (3.1 million), several other religions are represented in the survey. Atheism/agnosticism increased 4-fold since 1991 with 277, 237 people. Church of Ireland, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism and Presbyterianism also saw increases. The statistics can be read in full here. Thus, while Catholicism is still prevalent it is not the only religion( Side note: My father filled out our census form and ticked me as being Roman Catholic despite the fact that I actually fit under the “No Religion” category).
This problematic connection between reproductive health and religion has also become increasingly evident in the U.S. We saw this, for example, when Catholic bishops protested after the Obama administration announced that employers would be required to provide no cost birth control to employees through their insurance plans. Catholic officials and religious-affiliated employers riled against the idea that it was no longer acceptable to push their religious views onto the health and bodies of female employees. Moreover, Rush Limbaugh, a U.S. radio DJ called Georgetown student a “slut” and “prostitute” because she spoke out publicly in support of women’s access to birth control. Limbaugh is well know for is affiliation with and endorsement of the Republican Party who have vehemently attempted to curtail any advancements in reproductive choice in the States.
Furthermore, as a teenager growing up in Ireland, the section in my religion (Catholic) text book in secondary school told me that the only method of contraception accepted by Catholicism is the “withdrawal method.” Without elaborating on the science behind it, this method is widely and rightly considered a fool’s errand. My sex education included a talk about abstinence, and a very graphic presentation on STDs intended, in my opinion, to terrify us into celibacy rather than educate us on safe sex. In primary school I listened (without choice) to a rather creepy talk by a nun about the “invisible electric fences” that surrounded our bodies compelling us to live within a concealed, sexless and ultimately clueless gateless community in the name of “Our Lord” (Sound familiar???)! In fact, the first time I ever received literature on realistic and scientifically approved contraception methods was at the age of 19 when I received my freshers pack at University.
I attended a protest against Youth Defence in Cork City, Ireland on the 27th June 2012. This anti-choice group ran a highly controversial billboard campaign and National roadshow in order pontificate their offensive, anti-woman, anti-choice views. Although the group’s placards, posters and leaflets seemed to leave religion out of the equation, it became clear that religion could not be separated from their campaign when a Christian youth choir arrived on the scene to shout us down with spiritual songs and anti-choice chants. Very few politicians expressed concern over their inflammatory campaign. Senator Ivana Bacik’s call for a debate on the regulation of advertising in the light of Youth Defence’s campaign was rejected wholesale by her colleagues.
Similarly, we see the connection between religion and abortion in the U.S. To name one example from many, Indiana Republican Senate candidate, Richard Mourdock stated that when a woman is impregnated during rape, “it’s something God intended,” adding further flame to the already burning debate about rape and abortion in the U.S., and joining a blazing ring of male politicians who made similarly distasteful remarks about the issue. The utter incompetence, insensitivity and uninformed nature of such deluded comments are the direct result of miscommunication due to the curve balls of religion hurtling on downward paths to anti-woman, anti-choice policies.
Certainly, the U.S. and Ireland are not the only two countries in the world to have controversial abortion campaigns. However, I think the link between religion and state regarding this issue is clear in both cases. The examples I give are minimal, and in the Irish case coming in part from personal experience. However, I think it is enough to demonstrate that braiding church state and reproductive choice and health makes for a very tenuous knot that when unraveled reveals some severe inconsistencies regarding fact on the part of religion, a lack of backbone on the part of governments and an ongoing need for protest, solidarity and action by pro-choice groups and their affiliates.