Illegal Abortion Cases in Twentieth-Century Ireland

There has been a fair amount of research on the numbers of Irish women who have attempted abortions since 1967 and I think although Irish abortion history, and abortion history in general, is often viewed as a history with many turning points and transformations: abortifacient use; backstreet abortion; travel to Britain; I would argue that for the women involved the main narrative of abortion is one of continuity…….These discussions and debates that we are having today about women, the body and reproduction could be informed by more nuanced historical analyses of abortion. Even a cursory glance at available evidence proves that Ireland is a country with a deep and varied historical record of backstreet abortion. The secret journeys of women who travel abroad for a legal termination every day or who purchase drugs on the internet are legacies of the past in a country that has proven reluctant, until very recently, to recognise the reality of abortion.

Professor Cara Delay

Professor Cara Delay (Fulbright Fellow 2012-2013, UCD Humanities Institute and Associate Professor History Department, The College of Charleston) gave this lecture – ‘’Noxious Things’: Illegal Abortion Cases in Twentieth-Century Ireland’ – as part of the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland’s 2012-2013 seminar series. The lecture is available to podcast via the Centre’s podcast series (links to iTunes and RSS are below).

Listen to ‘Noxious Things’: Illegal Abortion Cases in Twentieth-Century Ireland’

Cara Delay has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship and will spend the 2012-2013 academic year at the UCD Humanities Institute, conducting research on her project, Desolate Journeys: Reproduction and Motherhood in Ireland, 1950-2000. This project investigates women’s experiences of reproduction, contraception, abortion, and motherhood in late twentieth-century Ireland. It also explores the ways in which late twentieth-century Irish society perceived and represented reproduction and motherhood. During her stay she will complete archival research in Dublin and Belfast and also conduct oral histories with women in order to demonstrate that women’s bodies were and are central to debates about Ireland’s place within Europe, as well as to definitions of Irishness itself.

Cara Delay received her Ph.D. in Comparative History from Brandeis University. Her research focuses on Irish women, religion, and culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is currently completing her book manuscript on lay Catholic women in modern Ireland. Her work has been or will be published in Eire-Ireland, New Hibernia Review, US Catholic Historian, and Feminist Studies, and her essays “Churchings and Changelings Childbirth in Modern Irish History” and “‘Ever So Holy’:Girls, Mothers, and Catholicism in Irish Women’s Life-Writings, 1850-1950” are forthcoming in volumes published by Irish Academic Press and Four Courts Press. She has received grants and awards from the American Association of University Women and the American Conference for Irish Studies.

Image: “Dr. Miller’s Female Monthly Powders” ad copy reprinted in an 1858 ”Boston Medical and Surgical Journal” article condemning such abortifacient advertising. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.