On the 25th May, Ireland will vote on whether to change their abortion laws and repeal the eighth amendment. It has been a long and at times, dangerous campaign for many women and men, but who are the people fighting to repeal the eighth?
For many of us, particularly in the UK, abortion is taken for granted as a right for a person’s autonomy over their own body. If you are to find yourself pregnant and unable or don’t want to follow through with the pregnancy, abortion services are relatively easy to access. But what if an unwanted pregnancy; be that caused by accident, rape, incest or abuse, only resulted in motherhood? If an unborn child was considered to have more rights than the person who was carrying it? This is a reality for many people across the world. In fact, approximately 25% of the world’s population lives in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws. Ireland is one such country.
At the moment, the eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, introduced in 1983, gives equal right to life to the pregnant person and the unborn child. Abortion is only available when a pregnant person’s life is at risk and it is illegal even if there is a fatal foetal abnormality, or in the case of rape or incest. However, this doesn’t mean Irish people aren’t seeking abortions. The Health Service Executive’s Crisis Pregnancy Programme predicts that 170,252 people have travelled abroad for terminations since 1980. Not only have they had to undergo what is often a highly invasive, traumatic procedure, they then have to get on a plane to travel home and keep the entire thing a secret. Campaigners to repeal the eighth on 25th May are seeking to change this.
Together for Yes is the leading National Civil Society Campaign to remove the Eighth Amendment. Campaigning for a more compassionate Ireland that allows abortion care for people who need it, one of its Co-Founders, Orla O’Connor says, “the May 25th ballot is not a vote on abortion as we already have abortion in Ireland, but a vote to decide if we will regulate it, make it safe, and care for the [people] of Ireland”.
“The Eighth affects every pregnancy in Ireland.”
Rather than the referendum being about whether Irish people have abortions –as the vote Yes campaign have made abundantly clear, abortion already happens under dangerous, unsafe or difficult circumstances, O’Connor says, “Only if we vote yes on May 25th will we be able to create a caring and supportive environment where [people] can make important personal decisions about their lives and health with the support of their own doctor.”
Abortion has long been a divisive issue in the once stridently Catholic country. A complete ban was only lifted in 2013, when terminations were allowed in cases where the pregnant person’s life was in danger and, whilst the full details of this month’s referendum were only announced in March, marches on bodily autonomy have been taking place for many, many years.
Taryn de Vere is a writer and mother of five from Donegal. She set up a regional abortion rights campaign group in her county, speaks on panel discussions and uses social media to spread her experience of having an abortion. When I asked her why the referendum meant so much to her she said, “I’m campaigning because the eighth amendment has killed before and will kill again. The eighth also affects EVERY pregnancy in Ireland. There is a big grey area in how it affects a pregnant person’s ability to give consent or refuse treatment. We know some Doctors have abused this grey area by forcing pregnant people to undertake procedures they don’t want.”
Passionate about releasing bodies from religious, patriarchal control, de Vere has written a poem included in Autonomy, a collaborative book of poems edited by Kathy D’Arcy to raise money for the Together for Yes campaign. She believes the eighth amendment “pits the foetus against the mother. As soon as you are pregnant in Ireland you’re wondering if the baby you’re carrying might cause your death – it’s horrible!”
Having had children both in and outside of Ireland, de Vere also highlighted the effect that the eighth amendment has on the maternity care that women receive.
“I had two babies in Australia and three here and I was shocked and distressed by how I was treated here – it was a very different experience. Maternity care here is over medicalised and you do not feel like you have any autonomy to make choices, indeed you don’t have any choices. I felt like a breeding animal. In Australia I felt respected, cared for and listened to.”
Sara is a young activist from Ireland with a deep history in campaigning for reproductive rights. “This campaign has been running for years. When I was home for the march last year and looking through banners and placards, my mum was telling me about the march she was on. There are generations of people gone by who have been advocating for this for years and years. It could seem like the movement has gained momentum recently but this has been coming over lifetimes.”
And Sara isn’t wrong. Whilst people have been campaigning across Ireland for many years to change the laws on reproductive rights, the death of Savita Halappanavar set off a media storm around the issue. In 2012 Savita, aged 31, sought an abortion as she began to miscarry at 17 weeks. She had already had a very difficult pregnancy in 2010 and feared what would happen if she did not have a termination. Doctors denied her the procedure as they believed her life was not at risk. The miscarriage took seven days to unfold in which time she developed sepsis. She was not diagnosed and died of cardiac arrest as a direct result. Both Savitas’ family and medical experts believe that if an abortion had been made available to Savita earlier she would still be alive.
It is clear that the referendum on 25th of May is more than an argument about abortion, and it is certainly more than a ‘woman’s issue’ (not least because women are not the only people who can get pregnant and want abortions). It is a vote on the health care that pregnant people and families receive and the life chances of those women as a result. Sara made it clear the impact that the vote holds for her and women across Ireland, “a repeal of this amendment will carry a domino effect. It signifies that women are equal, that we have rights and that we will not be silenced or reduced to roles within our lives determined by anyone other than ourselves.”
Editor’s Note: This article originally said that Taryn de Vere had written a book of poetry, Autonomy to raise money for the Together for Yes Campaign. In actual fact, de Vere has written a poem which is included in the collection. This article was updated on 22/05/2018 accordingly.