A referendum held a decade before I was born has shaped the Ireland I was born into, grew up in, and later emigrated from.
The Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, recognising the equal right to life for the mother and the unborn child, was introduced in 1983. It was a time when contraception was new to the Catholic Ireland and the liberalisation that accompanied the popularity of ‘johnnies’ and ‘anti-babby pills’ quite literally put the fear of God into the Pro-Life brigade. That was when a small group of people, with friends in the right places, managed to table a referendum that has ever since defined and limited Irish society, and Irish women in particular.
As written in the constitution, the Eighth Amendment is a restriction which pits the rights of a woman against the right to life of the unborn:
The State acknowledges 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.
It makes procuring an abortion in Ireland a criminal offence. A woman is restricted from obtaining an abortion in Ireland when she is pregnant due to rape. A woman is also restrained from acquiring an abortion if she is carrying a child with a fatal foetal abnormality, who will not survive outside of the womb. A woman can even be denied life-saving treatment for herself, chemotherapy for instance, if there is a risk that it would harm the unborn child.
The Eighth Amendment does not stop women from making the difficult decision to have an abortion. It does not prevent abortions. It just makes the process much more difficult, more expensive and much less safe. Since the Eighties, Ireland has exported its abortion problem. “Out of sight, out of mind” – the motto of the Catholic church through countless child abuse and mother-and-baby-home scandals. Up to 12 women a day travel to the United Kingdom to procure an abortion or take abortion pills sourced online. These women are denied after-care, sometimes with the only option to go to a sympathetic doctor claiming that they have miscarried.
Ireland is a young and modern country – in our eyes, at the centre of the world (…or at least on St. Patrick’s Day). At a point in time when women all over the world are standing up for their rights and calling #TimesUp on sexual harassment and violence, gender pay and pension gaps, glass ceilings and a general feeling of second-class citizenship, the people of Ireland will soon go to the polls. However, despite how timely the issue may be, I can’t shake the feeling that the anti-choice side has the wind on its back. Having hired a PR agency linked to the Brexit campaign, Donald Trump’s election and the (American) National Rifle Association, fake news, foreign money, and facebook algorithms still stand in the way of an empathetic Ireland that trusts women and their doctors.
There is also the scientifically-proven negative bias of referenda that means that the more complex the issue being voted on, the more there is a tendency on the part of some voters to just vote “no” to whatever change is being proposed.
Finally, the generational issue means there’s no convincing my otherwise wonderful mass-going granny that for some people, an abortion is the right choice.
The Yes Campaign, despite support from the Government, and the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, faces an uphill battle, relying on social media advertising and volunteer activists to drive the campaign home. With older people more likely to vote and men more likely to brush it off as a women’s issue, we’re still not where we need to be, especially when members of parliament and the senate actively vote to prevent democracy.
In Brussels, and around the world through a network called Repeal Global, Irish diaspora are mobilising worldwide, and if they can, driving, flying or sailing home to vote. The previous success of ‘Get The Boat To Vote’, for the gay marriage referendum, offers hope that we can make a change, one vote at a time. But we, as women, and as people of a younger generation, are reliant on male allies — boyfriends, best friends, dads and brothers — as well as grandparents, older relatives and friends to help us shape the future of the country we grew up in, love, and hope someday to return to for good.
It has been 35 years since the Eighth Amendment was introduced, and a new generation has come of age to join the debate. Many of the people who voted in 1983 are no longer of childbearing age – the future belongs to the young, the time for change has come.
As a country with one of the strictest abortion laws in the world, we are trailing far behind our European neighbours. And this is but one reason why, at my current age and stage, I am grateful to have the freedom of movement afforded to me by the European Union, to live in a country where women’s rights are not oppressed. Though we Irish seemingly have a penchant for repeat referenda, it is my hope that respect, dignity and bodily autonomy will win out first time on 25 May 2018, because this issue is not going away. In the meantime, we will continue to strive, Together, For Yes.