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.
Prof Delay explains that these methods were not novel or unique to Ireland. They had been used for generations.
One woman, Sheila D, in 1950 in Dublin, who was later tried for a surgical abortion, first tried gin and hot baths, while her lover had told her to try very high jumps.
When physical harm or folk methods didn’t work, women turned to drugs. These would include swallowing Epsom salts, disinfectants, Dettol, Jeyes Fluid and laxatives.
Cases involved a Donegal woman, in 1932, was charged after she attempted to miscarriage by taking “six pills, the nature of which is unknown, two Beechams pills and a bottle of Castor Oil”.
A case from Monaghan in the Coroner’s Book, in 1862, discusses the death of Rose who died after she consumed large amounts of Savin and Juniper to induce miscarriage. According to the coroner’s remarks, Rose’s sister admitted that Rose had taken drugs to terminate a pregnancy six years earlier and was successful in that attempt.
Lastly, women turned to surgical abortions.
Professor Delay also found a 1944 letter from a single woman, called Karmel, who had an abortion. She had been seeing a man Dennis for a few weeks. One of the letters she wrote to him:
As I have been feeling desperately ill all week, I have been wondering whether it would be possible to give the operation done next Sunday afternoon. I have had to knock off work three times this week and of course there are questions being asked. I have been taking very strong doses of ergot and this has left me very weak—as I was warned it would do—and standing eight hours a day doesn’t improve matters. Please don’t think I am complaining (after all, I haven’t done so up until now) but frankly I’m in dread of losing this job. Anyhow, I will keep the appointment on Sunday morning at 11 for an X-Ray… I’ll fall in with any suggestion you make.”
Karmel had a surgical abortion but ended up in Holles St as an emergency case and, a few months later, wrote another letter to Dennis:
You’ll be relieved I’m sure, that everything is successfully over, with no (apparent) ill effects. I ended up as an emergency case in Holles St hospital! These last four months have been like a horrible nightmare. I cannot tell you how relieved and happy I am to know that the worry and sickness is at an end. The operations were naturally painful and an horrific nervous strain. However, that was my side of it and I would like to think I faced up to it as decently as you did to yours. Very many thanks for you help, Dennis. Good luck and good wishes.
In almost all of the correspondence Delay has studied, women portrayed abortion as their sole responsibility.
In her research, Prof Delay also finds that the networks, in which women sought help, were almost exclusively female.
She recounts one case from 1940, where an 18-year-old woman Nell turned to her grandmother for help after she found out she was four months’ pregnant. Nell’s grandmother told Nell’s mother, Mary. Mary turned to her two best friends, Margaret and Emily. The three women attempt an abortion on Nell, using soap and water, on Mary’s kitchen floor. The procedure went horribly wrong and Nell died. While she lay dying, likely from an embolism, Margaret and Emily ran down the road and knocked on the door of a retired maternity nurse, who lived two doors down. The nurse told them to get another nurse, who lived five streets away. The second nurse arrived and said ‘get the doctor’. The doctor came and said ‘call the guards’.
*Prof Delay is on a Fulbright scholarship in UCD to conduct her current research on her project Desolate Journeys: Reproduction and Motherhood in Ireland, 1950-2000. Essentially she will be investigating Irish women’s experiences of reproduction, contraception, abortion and motherhood in late 20th Century Ireland.
Listen to a history hub podcast of her lecture ‘Noxious Things’: Illegal Abortion Cases in 20th-Century Ireland here.
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