Why Ireland Has Lagged Behind the Rest of Europe on Reproductive Rights

The country's traditional mores have sparked recent ideological battles, as well as a few national embarrassments.
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A woman holds a poster during a vigil in Dublin November 17, 2012, in memory of Savita Halappanavar and in support of changes to abortion law. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

Irish website SpunOut.ie recently caused a political furor with an article outlining tips for teenagers on how to keep threesome sex safe and enjoyable. The site came under fire after the Sunday Independent alleged the site was promoting the practice by writing about it.

The condemnation was swift and immediate. "The idea that people are dispensable and that you can objectify them for your own sexual gratification is incredibly regressive," the center-right Fine Gael politician Michelle Mulherin wrote in the Irish Independent. Irish Health Minister Dr. James Reilly soon joined the chorus of politicians expressing their disgruntlement. "From my personal point of view as a doctor as well as a politician I just think this is not the appropriate sort of information that the state should be putting out there," said O'Relly, referring to the fact that the news site received partial funding from the Irish Health Service. Reilly later said that the Health Service Executive would be reviewing the site.

Younger generations in Ireland are attempting to rid themselves of the shackles of taboos instilled by centuries of strong-arm Catholic influence.

SpunOut.ie describe themselves as a resource for 16- to 25-year-olds that provides "solutions to some of the big, or small, problems facing Irish society," as well as offering "information and skills to deal with the difficult things life throws at us and lends a megaphone for our voices to be heard to change our own lives and the world". Their articles range from helping teens support friends battling depression to advice on how to say sorry.

"I don't think we expected the reaction the article received," says SpunOut.ie spokesman Ian Power. "We had no expectation that the article would gain such notoriety."

In fact, the article (and "article" is a stretch, it's mostly a set of bullet points) was written, as Power outlined in the immediate aftermath, by a former editor who had "liberal views on sex". Every news outlet running the story highlighted that the former editor happened to be an American woman.

Ireland's staunchly Catholic history garnishes it a reputation as a religious stronghold, with a liberal American viewpoint of sex being at odds with the Irish way. It was interesting to see how the "other-ness" of American society when it comes to sex was played up by the Irish media.

This religious stereotype is not necessarily true at ground level, though. As SpunOut stated in their official statement on the back of the threesome article controversy, "Young people are having sex whether the Sunday Independent or Deputy Michelle Mulherin like it or not." They went on to say, "Education needs to begin earlier than the age of first sex and it is widely accepted that sexual education in Irish schools is both of poor quality and inconsistent."

They have a point. A global poll by condom maker Durex last year showed that 55 percent of Irish 18-year-olds said that they would graduate from school without any formal sex education , while only one in five surveyed said that their major source of sex education was from school. The plurality -- 41 percent -- claimed most of their knowledge came from friends. With such statistics, Ireland leaves itself open to being charged as an unprogressive first world country when compared to other European nations.

"The degree of difference is in some ways significant," says Patrick Molloy, president of Young Fine Gael, the political party's youth wing, about the culture gap between young Irish people and their parents compared with other developed nations. "The nature of the challenges faced by this generation are very different from those faced by previous generations. The circumstances in which this generation is growing up and starting work also is distinctly different in many ways due to the fundamental changes that have occurred throughout the period of the boom."

While a buoyant economy in the nineties and early 2000s did much to transform Ireland into a more cosmopolitan society in many ways, the SpunOut episode is just one in a long list of recent political clashes as Ireland's leaders struggle to adjust to a changing society. These days, younger generations in Ireland are attempting to rid themselves of the shackles of taboos instilled by centuries of strong-arm Catholic influence.

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Dean Van Nguyen is a freelance writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Irish Times and The Dubliner.

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