New research discovers illegal abortion cases in Twentieth Century Ireland
Academic looks at the history of abortion in Ireland before decriminalization in Britain
An American professor has discovered that up to 120 criminal trials involving abortion occurred in Ireland between 1900 and 1970.
History professor Cara Delay from College of Charleston in South Carolina was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in UCD where she is conducting research on her project ‘Desolate Journeys: Reproduction and Motherhood in Ireland, 1950-2000.’
The project investigates women’s experiences of reproduction, contraception, abortion, and motherhood in late twentieth-century Ireland.
Professor Delay found the prosecutions were under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which continues, in part, to be the basis for Ireland’s current ban on abortion.
The researcher obtained information from the National Archives in Dublin and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast.
She focused on this topic and era as she found there have been few academic investigations in relation to abortion in Ireland before 1967, when it was decriminalized in Britain.
Some of the most notable findings of her research so far include:
-Almost half of the women who attempted abortion from 1900 to 1970 were married, almost all of whom already had children.
-Almost all of those who were prosecuted were found not guilty, – despite evidence to the contrary, including cases where women even admitted the charges. This was especially true in the North.
-There are no reliable statistics about the number of women who obtained or tried to obtain illegal abortions up until 1967, after which most Irish women were travelling to Britain, thus making the study of the area extremely difficult.
The cases involved charges of abortion, conspiracy to commit abortion, attempting suicide, blackmail, and charges of murder or manslaughter, when the woman seeking abortion died. The cases involved women from all walks of life.
-Married mother-of-six Helen O, who died in 1956, after having an abortion (from infamous abortionist Mamie Cadden) was 34.
-Irene A was 26 and a student who had a self-induced abortion in 1965.
-Margaret M was a 25-year-old single woman who lived in Dublin but received a surgical abortion in London was having an affair with her married employer.
-In 1948, a woman who pleaded guilty to giving abortions to at least eight women in Co. Laois had among her clients a teenage girl, still living with her parents, and a married mother-of-two.
-In 1948, Wilhelmina, aged 40 and a wife and mother, sought an abortion when she became pregnant with her 6th child.
-In 1942, a 28-year-old woman in Tipperary, who had been married for 8 years, died while attempting to put an end to her 9th pregnancy.
From oral histories, some women believed that if they had baths or drank gin they could ‘do away with the baby’. Or if they could jump from a chair, instead of stepping down, they would lose the baby. One woman reported how her mother tried to have a termination by eating washing soda.
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