The Catholic Church and Women’s Oppression


In a predominately catholic country, women have often been subjected to inequality. Catholic Ireland of the 1920s shaped society in such a way that restricted women’s opportunities and choices in regards to many aspects of life, predominately reproduction. This was accomplished through a myriad of ways such as a ban on contraception, the setting up of the Magdalene laundries, forced symphysiotomy, and a constitutional ban on abortion that still exists in today’s society. It is prevalent that as long as a Catholic ethos prevails within a patriarchal and capitalistic society, that women’s oppression will always exist.

Church and State
   After the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the government at the time, Cumann na nGaedheal, promoted a catholic ethos as it opposed the norms of British society, which held predominately protestant values. Shortly after, when Fianna Fail and Labour came into power, the Catholic Church gained even more influence. They were the basis of funding for schools and it was the social norm for people to attend mass weekly. They had a substantial amount of influence over society as Catholicism became a symbol of national identity in the post-British society. It was therefore widely accepted by the state when the Church attempted in implement its beliefs and policies into the constitution. However, the standards and regulations held by the catholic church in regards to women have always been harsh and unequal. This basis of inequality spread from religious beliefs to the values of society, where their brutality was exacerbated.

The Magdalene Laundries
   An estimated thirty thousand “fallen women” were institutionalised in Magdalene Laundries in Ireland from the early eighteenth to the late twentieth century. These homes were ran by the Catholic Church. Their existence was initially to cater for prostitutes, however over time, women who became pregnant outside of marriage were exiled here. These women were considered to be impure and a shame to their families. By banishing women to these institutions, their families would not have to threat over the social stigma that came with having a child outside of wedlock.

Whilst in the laundries, many women experienced sexual, psychological, and physical abuse. These women were isolated from the shunning society and were not released when their pregnancy was completed. The cruel exclusion of innocent women from society shows the amount of influence the Catholic Church had on swaying peoples sense of morals. As well as this, the children that were born here were not always whisked away and adopted by other people. Early this year (2017) the remains of almost 800 children were discovered at a mass grave in Tuam, Co Galway. The laundries are another prime example of the inequality that existed within society as it isolated and dehumanised women, and belittled them to nothing more than harlots.

   Even though women were societally punished for becoming pregnant outside of wedlock, there was no preventative measures in place to reduce the rate of illegitimate children. Contraception, a medium which would have prevented the stigmatised pregnancies, was illegal. The story of the Irish contraception debate began in 1935. This legislation was influenced by the Catholic Churches values and their disapproval of artificial contraceptives. They believed that sexual relations should only be engaged by married couples with the intention to procreate, and so contraception should not be needed if people were abiding by Catholic values. This legal ban affected the lives of women greatly, resulting in large families with many children. This lessened women’s opportunities if they wished to work outside of the home, as it was expected that they would remain home and raise their young.

One of the events leading up to the legalisation of contraceptives was a stunt by a group of feminists. “The Women’s Liberation Movement train journey to Belfast on the 22nd of May 1971 became known as the Contraceptive Train and achieved a symbolic status as the Irish equivalent of the bra-burning by the women in the United States.” (Bourke, 2002) The group set off from Connolly Station, Dublin, and travelled up north to purchase contraceptives such as condoms and the birth control pill. As they arrived back to Dublin, they were greeted with protesters. The women waved the contraceptives in the air and many swallowed the pill, in an attempt to defy the archaic law. The women who brought the contraceptives into Ireland risked prosecution and social stigma from society. It wasn’t until the late 1980s when contraception laws became more liberal. This impacted women’s lives immensely as they now had more options, especially in regards to when and if they decided to have children.

   Another scandal that involved an injustice to women was symphysiotomy. Symphysiotomy is a procedure that involves cutting through the fibrous cartilage of the pubic joint. Religious ideology and medical ambition drove this torturous procedure up until the 1980s. Many senior doctors preferred symphysiotomy to a caesarean section as they believed in childbirth with no limitations. As a result of this procedure, victims often experienced lifelong disability, chronic pain, and mental suffering. In 2014, The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) heard how the women who were victims of symphysiotomy were often “operated upon wide awake and often screaming: those who resisted were physically restrained.” The UNHRC declared this treatment as an “extremely grave breach of human rights.”

   The UN’s stance on the inhumane methods of symphysiotomy is akin to their view on Irelands abortion laws. They believe the ban on abortion is “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” The discussion around the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution has always been a widely-heated debate. The 8th amendment is a constitutional ban on abortion that equates the life of a woman to that of a foetus. The amendment was put in place after a referendum was held almost 35 years ago. However, in recent years, the debate has become more intensified, with national press covering stories in regards to the 8th amendment almost weekly.

Some of the most noticeable cases include the X-Case in 1992. A 14 year old girl was raped, became pregnant and suicidal. A temporary injunction was sought to stop the girl from obtaining an abortion abroad. Shortly after, she miscarried.

In 2012, the tragedy of Savita Halappanavar gripped the nation. Halappanavar was a 31 year old woman who died of blood poisoning after being denied a possible life saving abortion. She was told “this is a catholic country.” And now, in this catholic country, an innocent woman is dead.

After this devastation, The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was brought into law. This act allowed for abortions when the mother’s life was at risk, including suicide. However, this proved futile in the case of Miss Y, an asylum seeker who was raped and sought an abortion. Although she was deemed suicidal and legally qualified for an abortion under the new act, she was still denied a termination and was forced to carry the child to term. She was given a caesarean section to deliver her rapists baby.

The horrors of Irelands strict abortion laws continue to appal the nation. In December of 2014, a clinically dead woman was kept alive on a life-support machine against her families wishes, to protect the life of her unborn child.

This law forces 12 women a day to travel abroad to access a basic health service, that is criminalised in their own country. A further 3 women a day order abortion pills online from doctor-led websites and preform at home abortions. This inhumane treatment of women in Ireland is due to the 8th amendment. The Catholic ethos that values the potential of all life, equates a fully formed woman to that of a foetus. As a result, women in this country are still, to this day, treated as second class citizens due to the lingering ideologies of what classifies as ‘Catholic morality.’

It is apparent throughout history, that women have always experienced inequality and oppression at the hands of Irish society. It is impossible to deny the role of the Catholic Church in this injustice. The norms throughout Irish society from the early 1900s were that of a Catholic ethos. These values shaped people’s ideas on how women should or should not behave and what options should and should not be available to them, especially in regards to reproduction. The legal ban on contraception, Magdalene Laundries and forced symphysiotomy shows the harsh inequalities women had to endure. Injustice stills exists today with the archaic constitutional ban on abortion. It is prevalent that as long as a catholic ethos prevails within a predominately patriarchal society, women’s oppression will always exist, unless there is a total separation between Church and state and a true secular society is formed.

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A community and youth development student, a socialist, a feminist, a lover of plants, a lover of food, a very small person