Since the introduction of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution in 1983, women in Ireland have had to live with a shockingly restrictive regime on abortion, which has resulted in numerous deaths and untold trauma. Now, the Irish public is saying: no more…
There’s only a handful of times in your life when you get to witness, and be a part of, history – to recreate the world and make it a better, more equitable place. In May 2015, everyone who voted in the Marriage Equality Referendum played their part, and those of us who voted “yes” reshaped our constitution – and our country.
Long before the referendum, you could feel the winds of social change blowing – and the good news is that they have not gone away. Over the past eighteen months, the demand for a referendum on the 8th Amendment has become louder and more insistent. We are angry about what this aspect of the Irish Constitution imposes on women – and we have every right to be.
Let us bear witness to what has happened in just the recent past.
Witness the needless, senseless death of Savita Halappanavar in University Hospital Galway, in 2012, as a result of a septic miscarriage, at 17 weeks gestation. The government thought it could quell the demands for repealing the 8th, which followed Savita’s death, with the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013. The government tried to sell this to the electorate as a sensible and compassionate compromise between pro- and anti-choice positions. But it’s not. It is a cruel law, as well as a hopelessly inadequate one. And I will tell you why.
For a start, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act would not have saved Savita’s life, as she did not appear to be in imminent danger. Besides, it is a law that makes no exception for victims of rape or incest, a law that does not care about the risk to a woman’s physical health, and a law that forces women whose pregnancies are incompatible with life to travel to a foreign country for a termination. It is also a law that carries a potential fourteen-year prison sentence for anyone inducing an abortion, or helping a woman to do so, on holy Irish soil. It is, in short, a disgrace to our politicians…
Witness the Ms Y case. In 2014, we saw how the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act played out. The Ms Y case is so shocking in what is says about Irish society that it is almost impossible to believe that it happened just two years ago. But it did. To recap: Ms Y, an asylum seeker arrived in Ireland in March 2014. A month later she realised she was pregnant. She was greatly distressed as the pregnancy was the result of rape, which had happened before she fled her home country.
As an asylum seeker Ms Y could not leave Ireland. She asked for an abortion under the 2013 law – which in theory allows for termination if there is a risk to the life of a woman, including by suicide. After she was refused an abortion, Ms Y went on hunger strike. In a Kafka-esque twist, the Health Services Executive obtained a High Court order to hydrate her. Instead of allowing her the abortion she so desperately needed, Ms Y was effectively held as a prisoner of the state until she was forced to accept a Caesarian section in August.
In theory, you might say that the 8th Amendment has a certain appeal – the original idea was to protect the lives of the unborn. In practice, however, the 8th equates the life of a woman with a clump of cells. A woman is an actual human being, while a foetus is still, as yet, only a potential one. The law was conceived to give an equal right to life to both, which is clearly deeply insulting to women. However in reality, it is frequently neither practical nor possible to act ‘equally’. Savita and Ms Y show that the law does not give equal right – it operates to the detriment of women.
Witness the language used by anti-choice groups. They claim that repealing the 8th will lead to abortion “on demand.” It is important to pay attention to this language. It implies that women will order up abortions as if it were all a jolly jape. The truth is that abortion is a hard decision for most women. Nobody is pro-abortion, nobody thinks it’s a bit of girlish fun – but it is sometimes necessary, sometimes the right decision.
There are many reasons why women choose to terminate a pregnancy. Some are too young to become parents; others are victims of sexual or emotional abuse; a heartbreaking few have unviable pregnancies or health problems that make pregnancy too great a risk; some don’t wish to have a child; many cannot afford to do so. Almost ten Irish women every day during 2015 travelled to the UK for an abortion. Many others will have risked prison by using abortifacient pills at home.
Savita, Ms Y and the Marriage Equality referendum have all galvanised the pro-choice movement. If the Yes campaign taught us anything, it is that sharing stories can help reshape public opinion. In the past year and a half, more and more women have been willing to risk approbation and condemnation by telling their abortion stories.
Witness the bravery of comedian Tara Flynn and writer Roisin Ingle, who both used their public platforms to tell their abortion stories in 2015. Witness the calls from many people prominent in Irish public life. In September 2015, writers, actors, musicians and filmmakers such as Marian Keyes, Anne Enright, Edna O’Brien, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Cillian Murphy, Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Colm Tóibín, Neil Jordan, and more than 240 other artists, signed a statement calling for repeal.
Witness the success of the Repeal Project. In June, Anna Cosgrave set up the project selling black sweatshirts with the word “repeal” in stark white. The jumpers reflect Cosgrave’s belief that the pro-choice campaign is a “black and white issue.” All proceeds go to the Abortion Rights Campaign. The demand for the Repeal jumpers has been such that the project’s online shop has been closed until they can process their backlog of orders.
Witness the anger when Maser’s “Repeal” graffiti in Temple Bar was painted over. Cross the Ha’penny Bridge and witness the word “Repeal” graffitied onto the steps. Witness the protestors outside the Women’s Centre on Berkeley Street in Dublin 7 – a centre for crisis pregnancies that willfully lies to women, claiming that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer and that women who have had abortions are negligent mothers. There is not a shred of evidence to support either claim.
Witness all of this and know – we must have a referendum on the 8th Amendment. And more than that, we must repeal it. The time has come. The time is now.
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