Our distrust of religious institutions when it comes to health care is rooted in the past


SOME OF THE most interesting conversations I’ve had with students in recent years have centered around the involvement of the Catholic Church in modern Ireland.

The growth of the institution in the 19th century, the influence of men like Cardinal Paul Cullen, and the proliferation of vocations, especially female vocations—it’s an alien world for many of them.

document history

By the time we reach the 1930s, the concept of popular piety, sodalities, temperance, and the legal enshrinement of the Catholic moral code brings heated debates to our classes.

We examine images of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, the socio-medical debates about the so-called “mother-child scheme”, excerpts from sermons, newspaper articles and parliamentary debates.

We discuss mistreatment of women, queer people, children in state care; those without power. As history students, they need to contextualize, examine evidence, and engage critically with the subject. When we examine issues like symphysiotomy, church attendance, and spousal rape, they find the evidence, but for many of them under a certain age, it’s an absurd world.

We discuss identity—how in many ways Catholicism offered a “ready-made badge of seclusion” in the new state, with what Tom Inglis has called a “Catholic habitus”—a way of thinking and acting in accordance with that way of looking at the world, pervading all social strata.

There is a feeling that this is the past, it is an Ireland that they will not experience in their lifetime. Amid the debate over the National Maternity Hospital, why are so many in Ireland concerned about religious interference in women’s health care, and what can we learn from Ireland’s recent history?

The medical seen as the moral

We entered the 21st century in Ireland in what historian Katie Wright has called the ‘Age of Exploration’. In several countries, governments have been forced to investigate historical institutional and community abuses, with many investigations involving the Catholic Church.

Add to this a decline in vocations, secularization and referendums on divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion; The political influence, moral authority and practical role of the Catholic Church in Irish society appear to have declined more than ever over the past two centuries. Recent referendums have shown that public opinion has changed radically while Catholic doctrine has remained the same, but the issue of property, ethos and the future remains a concern for many.

In 1922 Esther Roper wrote to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: “Never was there so firm a foundation of justice and liberty guaranteed by any country to its citizens”. She spoke about the Irish Free State.

Looking ahead – we know that was not the case. In society, what people read, saw, and wore attracted increasing attention—the censorship of contraceptive information, the ban on divorce, the obligation for women to sit on juries, and the increasing circumcision of women in public and private Life. The suffrage and promise of women’s equality may not have concerned everyone, but the cuts over the coming decades must have been a bitter disappointment to those feminists who fought for independence and a more equal nation.

The result of many restrictions on marriage and work, as well as concerns about succession, led to Ireland being given the very unusual title of having the highest birth rate in Europe but the lowest marriage rate in the 1950s. For many, those who were gay or queer or who couldn’t or couldn’t afford to marry, the Irish Free State was not an inclusive state – and leaving was the best option.

Until legislation was passed in 1972 that both men and women could not marry before the age of 16, Irish women could legally marry at the age of 12 and men at the age of 14. This was a rarity, with only 30 a year in the 1960s, but significantly the only non-age denomination was the Roman Catholic Church.

Discussions of female fertility, puberty, and their future roles as wives and mothers in the Seanad still make sobering reading, balanced by the views of politicians like then-Senator Mary Robinson. At the time, the country was in the midst of discussions about removing the “special status of the Catholic Church” and, as with the earlier “mother-child scheme,” the hierarchy had yet to be consulted and placated.

The vise grip

This is a narrative familiar to many in recent years as the darker aspects of Irish history, the history of the institutions, of women and of marginalized groups have been increasingly highlighted.

It’s a story of moral concerns eclipsing medical care. It’s a story in which women’s voices and health weren’t the primary concern — their potential as mothers was. Not their actual care, or the care of their infants in the case of those in Ireland’s institutions, their potential to be mothers.

I am 37 years old and have experienced the following in my life – received inadequate sex education in school (besides the fear of getting pregnant before marriage). Visited a consultant for a polycystic ovary syndrome study and was told the Billings Method was the best option for family planning. After requesting a DNC, you were actively encouraged to consider the harm and possible future pregnancies that could be affected.

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This is minor compared to what other women have experienced, but that’s why I’m concerned. If the last 200 years have shown anything it is that when it comes to gender, class, sexuality and health – the ethics about medicine have caused tremendous trauma to many.

Are we willing to risk the next three hundred?

dr Sarah Anne Buckley is Head of History at the National University of Ireland Galway and Past President of the Women’s History Association of Ireland.


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