By Penny Dreadful
I can’t explain this.
Abortion in Ireland has always been a tricky subject. As we face what will no doubt be a very uncomfortable and public battle to gain access to abortion, I find myself myself having to explain what the problem is to women of other countries.
Women are baffled by our country’s decision to send 12 women a day to the UK to access safe and legal abortion. They are even more baffled that the government seems to be completely fine with this.
After all, if you can’t see the problem, (because its travelled to the UK) then there is no problem right?
I’m going to do my best to explain the why, the what, the how and the who of legalising abortion and repealing the 8th amendment. So I suggest you grab a cup of tea and settle in because this is going to be a long old ride.
So what can’t I explain?
I can’t explain what it was like growing up in Ireland easily.
Growing up female and surrounded by the Catholic church was not the easiest of experiences. I grew up taught by nuns, in the church choir every Sunday and with my friends blessing themselves as we drove past churches. Your every move was scrutinised and we knew who didn’t go to mass on a Sunday.
When that’s where you came from, you have a long way to go.
In the beginning it was a lot worse then what we have now. We’ve always had ‘an issue’ with sex in Ireland. We totally had sex but we also totally pretended we didn’t. I grew up with friends who were number 7 in a family of 14 so you can see what I mean.
Condoms were illegal in Ireland until 1985. Prior to that, the Irish Women’s Liberation Front made daring moves to the North to buy condoms and bring them down on the train.
This may sound easy, but we are talking about Northern Ireland during the troubles and also, they faced arrest at Dublin station for doing so.
Nevertheless, they persisted.
So in 1985, non prescription condoms (take a second to process that you needed a prescription to buy condoms) and spermicial lubricant were now available. In 1983, the Irish government (also known as a Fine Gael and Labour Collation) sought to change the abortion law wording in the constitution. This was despite quite a few politicians complaining that the wording was wrong. The referendum passed with 67% of the vote and article 40.3.3 (otherwise known as the 8th amendment) came into effect.
The law states that ‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal life of the mother, guarantees in its law to respect and as far practicable, by it’s laws to defend and vindicate that right.’ Essentially what this means is that a woman’s life is now equal to her unborn child in the eyes of the law.
This is the piece of legislation we are calling to have amended.
In 1992, a girl (14) had been raped and became pregnant as a result. As she was deemed at risk of suicide, her parents began making preparations to take her to the UK for an abortion.
They made an enquiry to the gardai to find out if her foetus could be used as evidence against her rapist. The HSE (our healthcare service) and the Gardai used this to request an injunction blocking her from leaving Ireland. The case travelled to the supreme court before the injunction was lifted and she won her right to travel.
In 2002, Miss D (17) travelled to the high court to force the HSE to allow her to travel in the case of an anencephalic pregnancy (which means that the baby had not formed parts of the brain within their skull) She refused to state she was suicidal as a reason to be allowed to travel. She won her case.
Then 2012 happened. This was the year I moved to the UK like most people my age fleeing the desperate recessions, lack of jobs and bail outs back home. I found myself watching in horror as Ireland let a young woman die in Galway hospital.
Savita Halappanavar (31) died after she was admitted to hospital showing signs of a miscarriage. The 8th amendment stopped Savita from accessing the care she needed to save her life. She died of septicaemia as a nurse told her ‘Ireland was a Catholic country.’ Her husband has stated that if it wasn’t for Irish law, Savita would have lived.
Thousands marched, protests were held, placards raised and yet still an exhausted government ignored the women of Ireland asking for change. The country was in a deep recession, we owed money, banks needed to bailed, the building industry was on it’s knees and people were jobless. Unemployment was at the highest since our recession in the 80s and so was emigration. Now was not the time.
We did see a small change. An abortion can now be given as an option if a woman’s life is at risk. It’s the least amount of change that the government had to offer to prevent another Savita from happening.
So where are we now?
In 2017, the United Nation committee found against Ireland where Siobhan Whelan, a pregnant woman whose foetus suffered fatal foetal abnormalities. Whelan was allegedly paid €30,000 for her distress at being forced to access abortion abroad away from loved ones and medical professionals she trusted. This is the second case where Ireland was found at fault.
We’ve seen so many marches where tens of thousands of women attended, marched, held signs and held mass walk outs in protest. Some raised suitcases to symbolise the long and lonely journeys made in the past by women.
Still our government, led then by Enda Kenny, ignored us. Enda Kenny was not the biggest supporter of repealing the 8th amendment and seemed to take a defensive stance of ignoring the issue.
It was this ignoring the issue that led thousands of women (myself included) to live tweet Kenny with details of our periods. God knows if he ever saw them but I’ll never forget typing about my flow to the leader of my country.
While talking about protests on Twitter, it is impossible not to mention the @twowomentravel protest. Two Irish women making the journey live tweeted Kenny their journey to England. Thousands read about the heartache behind being so far away from loved ones in a strange country asking for access to something as simple as choice.
Without protests like this, would we have seen the about turn of some of our politicians? Michael Martin from Fianna Fàil announced this week he is now in favour of repeal.
As I write, Leo Varadkar has announced he will now be supporting abortion change. “I’ll be campaigning for them to be changed and to be liberalised, yes. As I’ve said on many occasions I believe Ireland’s abortion laws are too restrictive and need to be liberalised.’
With the full terms of the proposed referendum revealed on Monday, two things are for sure, this is going to be one complicated battle and I, for one, will be home to vote.
REPEAL THE 8TH NOW.