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Image by Ashling McKeever

By Lorna O’Hara

After much hemming and hawing, the Irish government has finally confirmed that the date for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment is going to be May 25th of this year. All over the world, young Irish people are booking their flights and planning the trip back home to vote in what may be our only chance in the foreseeable future to change the incredibly out-dated, restrictive and cruel abortion laws in our country.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Eighth Amendment (article 40.3.3) is a section of the Irish constitution that equates the life of a foetus with that of a fully grown woman. What this essentially means, is that abortion is basically illegal in Ireland. While abortion is supposed to be legal when a woman’s life is at risk (including at risk from suicide), the nature of the purposefully vague Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (2013) means that doctors don’t actually know when to intervene to save a woman’s life if complications during pregnancy arise.

Some people think that the Eighth will never affect them because they would simply never choose to have an abortion, but the truth is that you’ll never know when you could end up facing that situation, because the Eighth affects every single pregnant person in Ireland. While our current abortion laws prevent those who have been raped, become pregnant as a result of incest, or cannot continue their pregnancy because of their health or financial reasons from accessing terminations, it also affects those of us who may be having a much wanted pregnancy. There are plenty of cases of women who, because of fatal foetal abnormalities or other complications during pregnancy or miscarriage, have found themselves in need of a termination. Much to their surprise, these women have found themselves abandoned by their country and forced to go abroad at the saddest moment in their lives to access a procedure they should be able to access at home, surrounded by their family.

Furthermore, the Eighth also affects decisions relating to the treatment of every single pregnant person who decides they want to continue with their pregnancy. So even if you want to have a child, you’ll have no say over what happens to your body once you become pregnant. I don’t know about you, but that’s terrifying information to me. According to the Association for Improvement in Maternity Services in Ireland (AIMS), women are repeatedly coerced into having unnecessary Caesarean sections, procedures involving the forced rupture of membranes, and are often forced to undergo treatments and diagnostics during labour without their consent because of the Eighth amendment. These incredibly invasive procedures are often used in Ireland to speed up labour because until recently, the state’s maternity policy insisted that women give birth within a specific timeframe, i.e. 3 births per 24 hours for every bed on maternity wards. Despite changes made with the implementation of the National Maternity Plan (2016), the number of C-sections in Irish maternity hospitals are three times the rates recommended by the World Health Organisation. This cynical use of unnecessary medical procedures is often presented as necessary because the foetus is “at risk”. In fact a number of women have been told that if they don’t consent to a C-section that “the guards will be called” or they may even have a high court injunction taken against them if they refuse. According to the HSE’s National Consent Policy, the reason for this is: “because of the constitutional provision on the right to life of the unborn there is significant legal uncertainty regarding the extent of a pregnant woman’s right to refuse treatment in circumstances in which the refusal would put the life of viable foetus at serious risk”.  Or as one of my friends who recently gave birth described: “you are continually reminded that you are not what’s important, that the baby comes first and you are merely a vessel”.

So, is this piece of legislation actually effective in preventing abortion in Ireland? Despite what the “Save the 8th” campaign says, the Eighth doesn’t save anyone. Abortion happens in Ireland anyway; in fact countries where abortion is illegal have abortion rates roughly equal to countries where it’s legal. And Ireland is no exception: 9 women a day go to the UK to access abortion services there, and that’s only the women who actually give their addresses. Some even go to other European countries, for example Holland, to obtain terminations there. On top of that, 3 women a day also take illegal, but safe, abortion pills such as mifepristone and misoprostol, medications approved by the World Health Organisation. However, women who import and take these pills can risk a 14-year prison sentence. For comparison’s sake, I’d just like to point out that the average prison sentence for rape in Ireland is 10 years. If you’re raped and have to take the abortion pill, you can end up in prison for 14 years, while you’re rapist, if you even manage to get him prosecuted, will most likely walk free in 10 years or realistically a lot less. For others who can’t afford/are unable to travel or who can’t get their hands on the abortion pill, other more riskier options such as taking out-of-date stomach medication to induce miscarriage or other incredibly unsafe practices have also been recorded.

This, all of this, is because there is a group of people in society who want to impose their moral imperative on everyone. I wouldn’t know what to do if I became pregnant, but I know that I certainly wouldn’t impose my own choice on others. That’s all being pro-choice is and that’s all what repealing the Eighth aims to achieve. No one is pro-abortion. It’s not an “extreme” point of view. The anti-choice side love to paint us all as evil witches, but all we want is for people to make their own choices when it comes to their bodies: the when, where and how they have children. It’s the simplest thing ever really: you don’t want to have an abortion? Then don’t have one. Voting no to repealing the Eighth will do absolutely nothing to “save the unborn”; that moral crusade is just a thinly veiled attempt to maintain the status quo which drives women into desperate situations.

Abortion has always happened in Ireland, and it always will. If you truly want to reduce abortion, then you should be investing your time and money into sex education and provision of contraception, which are the only proven ways to reduce abortion rates. You should be inside schools teaching them about that instead of erecting giant graphic posters of 22 week old aborted foetuses outside. All we’re doing here is sending our women away, across the sea alone and taking them back silent and bleeding on the plane. We’re sending couples whose much-wanted child won’t survive outside the womb away from their families and taking them back with tiny white coffins in the boots of their cars. We’re making young girls, who are not more than children themselves, take abortion pills alone and afraid in their bedrooms. We’re risking the lives of women who have complications in pregnancy and tying the hands of doctors who want to intervene. Is that compassion? Is that “loving them both”? Is that caring or Christian or any of the things that the anti-choice brigade claim to be?

We’ve been marching at demonstrations, engaging in debates, and writing letters to our TDs for so long and now we’re finally going to have the referendum we’ve been demanding for the past 6 years and that many other activists have been waiting for since the infamous Eighth was introduced 35 years ago. Getting to this point has been because of years of work by dedicated activists, but they can only do so much. The rest is up to us now. This is not a time for complacency and we cannot expect others who have worked for so long to continue to do all the work for us. We need to be changing minds wherever we can; we need to be having those difficult conversations with family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues. Just as you should never presume that young people will automatically vote yes, you should never presume that it’s a lost cause to talk to your elderly religious aunt, because people can always surprise you. Some of the most heartening stories I’ve heard so far have been from friends who, shaking with fear and emotion, went and talked to their parents who they presumed would vote “no”, and were surprised to find them on their side and ready to vote “yes”. I can tell you for a fact it’s not always going to be that easy, indeed I had my own experience just a few weeks ago when discussing it with my religious and quite traditional mother. It’s tough, but it needs to be done. I can only hope that you can use some of what I’ve written here to guide those delicate conversations.

Despite the fact that it may seem that attitudes have changed and that there’s a huge amount of support among young people, every single vote is going to count in this referendum. Remember, the divorce referendum in Ireland only passed by less than 1% back in 1995. Please, please don’t presume that this is going to pass. We need to be talking with everyone we know and we need to be making sure that we’re all on the electoral register, and if not, we need to be applying to the supplemental register (which can be done up to 14 days before the referendum). We need to be canvassing, and if that isn’t your thing, then we need to be fundraising, donating or just talking about it. We need to make sure we vote. We need to make sure the men in our lives vote. We need to ensure that our families and friends vote. We need those abroad who are eligible to come back and vote. We need everyone on board, because we may never get another chance at this in our life time. This is an historic moment in our history and it’s too important not to get involved.

Lorna O’Hara is a doctoral student and feminist activist currently living between Berlin and Dublin. Her writing and research focuses on feminist activism and art, in particular similarities/differences between international feminist groups and artistic projects that have a focus on increasing awareness about/changing violence against women and the control of women’s bodies.


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