This piece was originally published in a shorter Dutch version on www.oneworld.nl. Photo credit Melissa Mannion, Galway.
The voices of Irish women set out a vision of a hopeful future for all
After the abortion referendum in Ireland, Irish writer Alice Burke takes stock. “After years of confusion and insufficient medical care for women, Irish voters have changed the course of the narrative: It’s time for self-determination, with room for free, safe and legal abortion.”
Growing up in Ireland we had an expression: “Getting the boat to England.” It was our euphemism for an abortion, heading across the waves to a country where it was allowed. We all knew women who got the boat to England, so common was the need to head off and seek reproductive healthcare elsewhere. Heading over to England was a byword for not being looked after in Ireland, for knowing that you would be shamed for a teenage pregnancy, a pregnancy outside of marriage, or for seeking an abortion for any reason at all.
Just over one week ago, a woman in Ireland who took abortion pills was a criminal who could face 14 years in prison. A woman in Ireland who became sick and needed chemotherapy during her pregnancy was unable to procure an abortion and receive treatment, even if her own life was at risk. A woman in Ireland whose world shook beneath her when she found out that a much-wanted baby had birth defects and would not survive long outside the womb could not choose a peaceful death for her child, but instead had to endure the rest of her pregnancy and deliver a child certain to die.
On Friday May 25th, the world changed for the women of Ireland, and the ground shook not in sorrow, but in assured relief that no longer would women need to travel to foreign jurisdictions to access life-saving healthcare.
On that day, voters said yes to repealing the 8thamendment to the Irish constitution that effectively made the life of a foetus equal to the life of the mother, prohibiting healthcare professionals from effectively caring for women’s reproductive health across the spectrum.
During the run-up to the referendum to Repeal the 8thamendment, a Facebook pagewas set up to allow women to anonymously submit their stories of how they were treated in Ireland when they needed an abortion. Thousands of women came forward.
“…The 8th has impacted on me, and I bear the physical and emotional scars of that impact. The 8th affects every single pregnancy in this country and is a toxic element in our maternity care,” said one.
“I can’t imagine having had to carry that pregnancy. I can’t imagine bringing an unwanted ‘life’ into this world; a ‘life’ that was conceived in a violent, hateful, non-consensual way. That is not what I would want for a mother or a child. Yet, this is what happens in my home. Ireland”, said another.
The stories ran for weeks, endless tales of loss, tragedy, oppression but also freedom and hope. Women opened up to each other and – in many cases – themselves and their own families for the first time. Close friends of mine took part, sharing stories of having to travel abroad for terminations in cases where they knew their much-loved babies would not survive being born, pouring their hearts out to complete strangers online. We watched in awe of the strength of these women, and make no mistake, the campaign was won by fierce truth and great courage of these women. Cloaks of shame became swords of honour, and every lost child was remembered with love in the midst of it all.
The Yes campaign became a space of sharing and support for women, where years of silence due to societal pressure and often religious conservatism had erased stories like this.
Watching from afar as an Irish emigrant, it was phenomenal to see my country grow and stretch itself in this way. In 2015, I watched from afar as Ireland voted Yes to same-sex marriage, with 62% of voters approving the changes to the constitution. This time, I watched as over 66% of voters said Yes to reproductive healthcare and access to abortion for women, and felt immense pride at what Ireland has become in such a short space of time.
Ask almost any Irish woman who Savita Halappanavar was, and she’ll talk to you about a case that brought this issue to the fore for many of those Yes voters. Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old dentist, living in Galway on Ireland’s west coast who lost her life as a result of confusion relating to the 8thamendment.
Savita was 17-weeks into an otherwise healthy pregnancy when she began to miscarry, and was exposed to sepsis. The law in force at the time stated that the act of abortion where there was no immediate physiological threat to the woman’s life was a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment. By the time Savita’s sepsis had become life threatening, it was too late to help her. A midwife in the hospital attempted to explain the situation to Savita’s husband by saying Ireland was “a catholic country”. Savita’s daughter was stillborn, and Savita died, another name on the list of women lost to the cruelty of the 8thamendment.
But the death of Savita would prove to be a turning point for the entire pro-choice movement in Ireland. No longer were people polarised by the Catholic Church or social norms, people now saw the 8thamendment for what it was: a confusing, badly enacted piece of legislation that was leading to barbaric conditions for pregnant women.
During the run-up to the referendum, many on the pro-life side tried to paint an Ireland of rural vs urban, of catholic vs atheist, but at the end of the day there was only one side that mattered; the side of compassion. Only one constituency in the whole island voted against repealing the amendment. The need for equality of reproductive care and access to safe abortion united all age groups, all genders and all backgrounds.
With legislation currently being drawn up and expected to be in place by the end of the year, it won’t be too long before Irish women can go into a pregnancy with confidence that if the worst happens, they do not have to get on a ferry or a plane to stay safe. It’s estimated that approximately 170,000 Irish women travelled abroad to procure an abortion between 1980 and 2016, with over 1500 of those women receiving abortions in the Netherlands.
It is also estimated that those figures are much lower due to under-reporting, and also do not account for women taking black market abortion pills.
Several days after the referendum, on a well-known Irish radio programme, Jane, a clinical midwife specialist in foetal medicine in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital spoke about what the result meant for the medical community in Ireland. She expressed reserved relief that safe guidelines could now be developed for patients and professionals, and talked about her worry during the years when having to send patients off into the streets knowing they would need to go elsewhere to seek a safe abortion whilst grieving for a wanted pregnancy.
The host of the show asked her how many times in her professional career had she been faced with a couple or a woman who said “I just don’t understand why you can’t take care of me here”. It was the only time in the interview that her sharply professional voice showed her true emotions. “Too many times to imagine; every day, of every week. It is heartbreaking. I think this legislation now will mean that we care for our patients in our country.”
That is the hope of every Irish person who voted yes, that we can now take care of pregnant women in a safe and responsible way, and that those same parameters for reproductive care are extended to our sisters in Northern Ireland before long.