Ireland’s Pro-Choice Censorship Issue Debated : Abortion: The country’s Supreme Court has ruled that even publishing information on how to get such services in a foreign country violates the Constitution.


Irish editions of Cosmopolitan, the glossy women’s magazine, appear with blank spaces that should contain classified ads for British abortion clinics.

More than six years after a referendum vote to enshrine a ban on abortion in the constitution of Ireland, which is 93% Roman Catholic, it has become a censorship issue.

In December, the national student union had to stop circulating its official handbook because it contained information on abortion services.


Student leaders talk of defying a Dec. 19 court injunction and smuggling copies in from Northern Ireland. Abortion is banned in the British province too, but not information on abortion.

Ruth Riddick, a feminist who ran a pregnancy counseling service, still gets anxious calls at home, most of them from men with pregnant girlfriends.

“The debate has become both more one-sided and more trivial,” said Riddick, a 35-year-old arts administrator.

“It has shifted from deep moral issues about whether women have a right to choose. . . . A woman’s abortion experience is being reduced into a simple question of ‘Where the hell do I get a phone number?’ ”

Marie Vernon, a campaigner against abortion, countered: “You don’t have an absolute right to information. A primary right is the right to life, and all other rights are secondary.”

Abortion always has been illegal in Ireland. The ban was reinforced by the 1983 decision to write it into the Constitution.

In March, 1988, and again last December, the Supreme Court ruled that giving information on how to get an abortion in a foreign country violates the Constitution.

That does not make it a criminal offense, but it enables anti-abortionists to win injunctions. Violators of the injunctions can be jailed for contempt of court.

Now the battle has moved to European courts, which must rule whether the ban violates the rights of the 3.5 million people in Ireland to get the same information as other West Europeans.

The Irish rulings climaxed lengthy civil actions brought by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, the main anti-abortion lobby outside the Roman Catholic Church, against two pregnancy counseling services and the student union.

Riddick closed her counseling service, but she still provides information from home, risking contempt proceedings. The Dublin Well Woman Center, a general health clinic that ran the other counseling service, no longer gives information.

Ireland is the only European country with a total ban on abortion.

Divorce and homosexuality also are illegal, and the church runs most schools and hospitals. Contraception was legalized only a decade ago.

In Ireland, the abortion issue seems at once starker and more complicated than the customary arguments about women’s rights and respect for human life.

Even liberals don’t expect to see abortion legalized within a generation, and they acknowledge that the opposition is deep-rooted and widespread.

They say the controversy about information has increased women’s fear and guilt, prevented proper counseling and made late abortions more likely.

“In 1983, we packed halls with people fighting publicly for legal abortion; now, many are afraid to call for a right to information,’ said Pauline Ryder, head of the Well Woman Clinic, which is privately financed.

Each year, at least 4,000 Irish women go to Britain for abortions. Most pay about $340 at private clinics.

The annual figure, based on abortions performed in Britain on women who gave addresses in Ireland, has changed little in five years.

Moving the dispute into the realm of free speech has increased support for the pro-choice lobby.

An attempt last year by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child to jail four student leaders over the handbook provoked large demonstrations outside the court.

In January, students voted 3 to 1 to support the Union of Students in Ireland, which has 60,000 members, in its refusal to stop giving information on abortion clinics in the handbook or by telephone.

“I wouldn’t say the population supports abortion, but there is sympathy for our fight against censorship,” said Karen Quinlivan, a 23-year-old law graduate who is the women’s rights officer at the student headquarters.

“In the ballots, the students voted contrary to what we’ve been taught all our lives,” she said. “There’s a feeling that SPUC is carrying things too far. . . . These people are extreme and dangerous.”

Vernon, spokeswoman for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, is a cheerful homemaker in her mid-40s with five children.

Her youngest child, 8-month-old Sean, is adopted. His natural mother, an unmarried teen-ager, lived with the Vernon family during her pregnancy.

“He’s just the sort of baby who might have been terminated, as they like to call it,” Vernon said, then laughed and added, “But I feel a bit guilty using him as a sales point.”

On the walls of the society’s one-room headquarters in a well-to-do Dublin suburb are a disturbing picture of a late-term abortion and one of Pope John Paul II cuddling a baby.

The society, founded in 1980, says it is non-sectarian and has no direct support from the church.

Membership peaked at about 4,000 during the referendum debate, but now is about 1,000.

Cosmopolitan was censored after a citizen complained to the Censorship and Publications Board, a government agency. The board, which can ban any publication it feels “advocates the procurement of abortion,” told Cosmopolitan last year to drop the ads.

“We agonized over it,” said Simon Kippon, the American magazine’s publisher in Britain. “In the end, we decided . . . we’d make the point with the blank space.”

The magazine, owned by the Hearst Corp., sells 13,000 copies a month in Ireland.

Another Hearst women’s magazine, Company, pulled an eight-page supplement on abortion from the March issue of its Irish edition because it included clinic addresses.

“The Cosmopolitan initiative was serious and Company’s self-censorship was even more so,” Riddick said. “Once you put those kind of precedents in place, they can be applied across the board.”