- 27 Oct 15
Our leading politicians have been dragging their heels, but the voices on the street are loud and clear: people want a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment. we look at the momentum behind the pro-choice campaign, as Tara Flynn and Róisín Shortall shine a spotlight on the issue.
That the State continues to claim dominion over what its citizens do with their own bodies is one of Ireland's greatest, ongoing scandals. A draconian notion, it flies in the face of the right to personal autonomy. And its ill effects are most clearly felt when it comes to the issue of abortion.
The 8th Amendment to the Constitution Of Ireland, signed into law following a referendum way back in 1983, cites “the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
The arguments ever since have frequently centred on a question of the so called ‘unborn’... But what does that word mean? Are we talking here about a human being? A potential human being? A foetus? A zygote? It's a debate that has raged for a long time - and it is as meaningless as it is absurd.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of women have been forced to make extremely tough, real world decisions about how, where and when to end a pregnancy. Savita Halappanavar died in University Hospital Galway three years ago, because the medical staff there decided that they could not carry out the termination that she requested – and, as it turned out, that she desperately needed – because of the provisions of the 8th Amendment. When Savita, an Indian woman, pleaded that Hinduism allowed for abortion, a hospital operative told her that “this is a Catholic country.” And so, she died. Totally unnecessarily. And she is not the only one.
It is ostrich-ism at its worst. Those who have tried to monopolise the idea of being “pro-life”, take a perverted pride in Ireland’s stance, despite the fact it does nothing to prevent desperate pregnant women finding other ways, in other countries, to terminate their pregnancies.
A conservative estimate places the number of women who have travelled abroad to get an abortion since the 8th Amendment was signed into law at over 150,000. It may indeed be as many as 200,000. Understandably, given the toxic attitude that has existed towards women who decide that abortion is the best course, it’s difficult to get anything resembling an accurate figure. And that’s before we consider abortion pills, the procurement of which currently carries the threat of a 14-year prison sentence. How monstrously stupid and offensive is that?
Writer and comedian Tara Flynn is one of the women who travelled abroad to have an abortion. She has taken the brave decision to make her story public, in the hope of bringing the focus back to the everyday trauma women face because of the 8th.
“It’s time we changed the dialogue and made people realise that these aren’t demonic, monstrous murderers who have abortions,” Flynn says. “We’re people that you know. In Ireland, statistics show that it’s almost impossible not to know someone who has had a termination. They may never tell anyone and they shouldn’t have to tell anyone. But we need to waken people up to the fact that we can’t brush it under the carpet anymore – because who you’re brushing under the carpet is somebody that you love.
“If you say you’re anti-abortion in Ireland,” she continues, “what you’re saying is you’re pro-women throwing themselves down the stairs. Or crashing the car just enough. Because that’s what desterate people do. Or, if they have enough money to travel, you are in favour of making it riskier and more expensive for them. But you know it’s happening.”
At 37, Flynn became pregnant but felt incapable of parenting. Fearing for her future, she scraped the money together to travel to The Netherlands for an early termination. She received compassionate care in Utrecht. But, of course, there was nothing for her back at home in Ireland.
“It is life-altering, no matter how it feels,” she observes. “You come home and not only do you not get support from the broader community, but you have to keep it secret – because technically you’d be a criminal if it had happened on Irish soil. The 8th Amendment is what makes people who are anti-abortion feel entitled to be so vicious towards women who have made the choice to have a termination.”
In shirking the responsibiity to address the issue, Taoiseach Enda Kenny talks about the 8th Amendment being the will of the people. But that was then. No one who is now under 50 years of age had any say in a vote that took place 32 years ago. Which explains why there is a powerful feeling of momentum behind the movement for change – and for choice.
In September, hundreds of Ireland’s most illustrious artists added their voice to the cause, as the likes of Christy Moore, Anne Enright, Cillian Murphy and Neil Jordan signed a petition to ‘Repeal The 8th’. That was the message later that month too, when up to 10,000 people took to the streets of Dublin for the March For Choice.
Encouragingly, the Labour Party – which has fought for almost every positive change that advanced the liberal agenda over the past thirty years – has nailed its colours to the mast, making repeal of the 8th Amendment a matter of party policy and stating that it will be a priority in any future Programme of Government.
Meanwhile, speaking to Hot Press after the same-sex marriage victory, campaigning Senator David Norris acknowledged that, while it is not “as easy a sell as love and marriage”, it is the next very important social issue that needs to be addressed.
Now, Róisín Shortall TD, joint-leader of the new-fangled Social Democratic Party, is in agreement. “There has been a lot of shifting of opinion in relation to abortion over recent years,” she says. “Successive polls would indicate that, in certain circumstances, like in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, or in the cases of rape and incest, that people should have access to abortion services. I think that would be the majority view in the country and I think the constitutional provision doesn’t allow for that.”
That the tide has turned seems clear. A poll conducted by Red C on behalf of Amnesty International in May found that 81% of Irish people want a “widening ground” for permitted abortion, with 70% agreeing that women should have the right to an abortion in the case of rape, incest, severe health risks or fatal foetal impairment. But for Flynn this does not go far enough.
“I can’t say what is a crisis for someone, in terms of mental health,” she observes. “Or their family situation or an abusive domestic situation. So the woman involved must decide for herself. That’s the only logical way I can see for it to be work.”
Flynn is also calling for a more measured, mature debate as the possibility of a referendum looms.
“It’s been divisive before,” she acknowledges. “But actually, it’s all about grey areas. All about real women and their messy, brilliant lives. We’ve had a divisive narrative and it’s been steered by divisive parties. And we have to bring it into the middle and go ‘listen, we all know someone affected, what are we going to do to help them?’”
In the end it is about trusting women to manage their own fertility. Most of them are doing it anyhow. It is just that they are being forced to do it the hard way.
Giving Out Yards – The Art Of Complaint, Irish Style by Tara Flynn is out now through Hachette