On May 25, Ireland will vote in a historic referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which criminalizes abortion, from its Constitution.
Friday, May 25, marks a historic day for Ireland. It is a day that gives the country’s voters the chance to right a historic wrong, to banish to the history books a constitutional amendment that has caused nothing but pain, suffering and humiliation to the country’s women.
Since the establishment of the independent Irish state, its women have had indignity after indignity inflicted on them as a result of collusion between the state and the Catholic Church — single mothers imprisoned in laundries and mother and baby homes, denied access to contraception until the 1980s, denied the right to divorce their husbands until the late 1990s and subject to various other state interference in their lives and their health.
But the most heinous crime against Irish women — and the one that the government is hoping to rectify today — is that of the Eighth Amendment. Inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983 after a referendum forced by Catholic pressure groups, it has been a subject of fierce debate ever since. The amendment equates the life of the mother to the life of the foetus, meaning that Irish women essentially find themselves in the situation where their lives have the same legal value as a fertilized egg.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Abortion was illegal in Ireland long before 1983, but many feared that a court ruling could see a change in existing legislation. Enshrine something in the Constitution — especially something as divisive as abortion — and you’re going to have a hell of a time getting it out again.
Irish society has long had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to abortion. Though many in the country proudly parrot the claim that it is “one of the safest countries in the world to give birth,” the fact is that thousands of women travel to the UK every year, and there is a growing number of women who order abortion pills online and take them (illegally) in their own homes. The penalty for having an illegal abortion on Irish soil is a 14-year prison sentence, which is far longer than the average penalty for a rape conviction. In Ireland, a rape victim is forced by law to carry her rapist’s baby to term and would face a longer prison sentence for an illegal abortion than the perpetrator would receive for the crime.
So-called “hard cases,” of which rape is only one example, have been raised repeatedly throughout the current campaign. It’s clear from the polls that there is a very strong majority in Ireland for allowing abortion in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. Many women and couples have told their stories in recent years as the floodgates have slowly opened and the shame that surrounded the issue for so long has receded into the background.
Irish people know by heart a veritable alphabet soup (Miss X, Miss C) of cases taken by women to challenge the amendment, but the case that has burned itself into the national psyche is that of Savita Halappanavar, who died after a miscarriage in an Irish hospital in 2012 after requesting and being denied a termination.
Turn on any Irish talk show or current affairs program these days and chances are you’ll see a woman or couple who received a heartbreaking diagnosis for their wanted pregnancy and were told by Irish hospitals that there was nothing they could do. As long as there is a foetal heartbeat, the hands of the doctors are tied. The choice is essentially between carrying and delivering your baby who will not survive, or going to England and have yourself taken care of there. The country has been watching and listening to these horror stories for years.
Nasty and Divisive
So if that’s the case, exactly who is voting to retain the Eighth Amendment and why? To a large extent, the No campaign is made up of the same people and groups who voted No to Ireland’s marriage equality in 2015. It’s the usual motley crew of conservative (and often rural) politicians, the Catholic Church, the so-called Iona Institute — not an institute at all but a small group of Catholic hardliners who consider themselves the nation’s morality police — and others.
— Danielle Stephens (@DaniS1006) May 24, 2018
The Catholic Church itself has made its position known, as it did in the marriage equality referendum, but wave after wave of child abuse scandals have diminished its standing in the country to a mere shadow of what it was in its heyday. Moralizing priests and bishops from a church that disposed of the babies of unmarried mothers in septic tanks is no longer a good look in Irish society, and the Church knows this.
Ask any Irish person and they will tell you that any abortion referendum campaign is “nasty” and “divisive,” and this one is no different. This is no marriage equality referendum, which was passed with a comfortable majority in almost every part of the country. Ireland has made enormous strides in its approach to the LGBT community — Ireland and Russia decriminalized homosexuality in the same year, 1993, and yet Ireland now boasts same-sex marriage, a number of LGBT ministers and high-profile politicians and since last year, an openly gay prime minister.
Abortion is different. If Irish women and girls want to travel to the UK to avail of abortion services, that’s one thing, but many believe that offering them in Ireland is another. This is an issue that has divided towns and cities, divided neighbors and even families. Polls have shown that many voters are unsure about the government’s proposals to bring Ireland’s laws into line with the rest of Europe and favor only dealing with the hard cases. A persistent effort by the No campaign to spread confusion and misinformation about the government’s proposals has been met by a fierce resistance from the Yes side.
This is no Brexit referendum either. The government’s proposals are the result of a long and careful period of consideration; they come from two separate bodies — the Citizens Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee — that were tasked with coming up with a solution to this problem, and they concluded that there is no way to deal with any cases, “hard” or otherwise, without repealing the amendment. The government has made enormous efforts to explain the ramifications of a Yes vote to the public and campaigners — most of whom are ordinary people who campaign in their free time — launched a successful initiative that encouraged young people to talk to their older relatives about the issue.
The Home to Vote phenomenon has also been revived from the 2015 referendum. Ireland does not have a postal vote system, so you must be registered to vote at an Irish residence and you must be in the country on the day to cast your vote. There is a further restriction on Irish emigrants — if you have lived outside of the country for more than 18 months, you are no longer eligible to vote. Despite this, there has been an enormous push by eligible Irish emigrants from all over the world to return home to cast their vote. Social media groups have been set up for Irish emigrants who have been away for longer to help fund those who can still vote and are traveling home.
More Compassionate Ireland
Though it’s tempting to break this referendum down into the usual young versus old, urban versus rural lines, that would be oversimplifying what is an extremely complex issue. The old dream of a conservative rural Ireland simply no longer exists — it voted en masse to give same-sex couples the right to marry. Older Irish people have often watched their friends and relatives be banished to the UK to obtain health care for decades and are now ready for a more compassionate Ireland. For Irish people, this issue defies simple categorization.
I hope that Ireland will vote Yes on Friday. I have watched the inspiring number of ordinary people who have given up their free time to ensure that Irish women have their human right to health care at home. I have watched thousands of Irish people fly home from all over the world. I have watched Irish society force an indifferent government into taking action on an issue it has long preferred to ignore. Irish women won’t wait any longer.
One thing is for sure, no matter what the result of Friday’s referendum, the way the country talks about and views abortion has changed for ever. It is now no longer a question of if, but a question of when. The genie is out of the bottle.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.