On 25 May, all of Ireland will be invited to cast a vote that could change Irish women’s lives. Whether or not we choose to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution will come down to a simple yes or no.
It is 35 years since the Eighth Amendment was passed in Ireland, set to the backdrop of an 1861 law that criminalises women who ‘procure a miscarriage’, regardless of the circumstances. In that same year, 1983, Sheila Hodgers from County Louth passed away just two days after giving birth to her third baby. Sheila, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, had been denied her anti-cancer treatment, as it would harm the foetus. Her baby died almost immediately after birth.
January, 1984, 15-year-old Ann Lovett left class at Mercy College in Co Longford on a rainy lunchtime and gave birth to a baby boy at the town’s grotto. The boy was stillborn; Ann lost her life a few hours later. Fast forward to 2012 and Savita Halappanavar loses her life to sepsis in a Galway Hospital when she is denied a termination, despite being in the process of miscarrying, because a foetal heartbeat was detectable.
A criminal offence
When tragedies like this occur, they make international news; the world sits up and says: how can that happen? For these tragic women and girls, the answer is: there was no choice.
It is still a criminal act, carrying a 14-year prison sentence, to procure or administer an abortion in Ireland, unless it can be granted under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. In 2015, this amounted to 26 legal terminations in Irish hospitals.
In that same year, UK records showed that 3,451 women gave an address in the Republic of Ireland when attending abortion clinics. That represents nine women per day – and doesn’t take into account those travelling to alternative countries or those who did not give their true address. Or those who couldn’t travel. Or the thousands who instead attempted to purchase abortion pills online.
It’s clear the current legislation is neither preventing Irish women from having abortions, nor protecting those in crisis pregnancies who feel they cannot continue.
Last year, the Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, made up of 100 randomly selected people, published a report on the Eighth Amendment. It showed that 92 per cent of its voters supported abortion with no restriction as to reason up to 12 weeks.
Months later, the UN’s Committee Against Torture expressed concern regarding Ireland’s current abortion laws and the “severe physical and mental anguish and distress" experienced by women here because of them.
Changing the conversation
Since that time, support for repeal of the Eighth Amendment has grown. More and more women are sharing their stories. The pro-repeal campaign has mobilised into the Together for Yes campaign and has pushed the conversations beyond more traditional parameters. It has highlighted the reality that Irish women’s health is put at risk by this amendment, that they are denied bodily autonomy - and that all sorts of circumstances and reasons bring women to seek abortions.
It has also shown that being pro-choice isn't just about being pro-abortion. Instead it’s about giving women the right to choose. The right to have control of their own bodies.
For those who may have worried that the country isn’t yet ready to embrace such important change, it has been heartening – if not a bit surprising – to see Together For Yes’s crowdfunding campaign reach €500k in a matter of days. The conversation is not yet done, but it appears both sides of this debate are on more of an equal footing than in 1980s Ireland.
The upcoming referendum has been a long time coming. It doesn’t mean we all have to agree with the specifics of how our abortion laws will change: that’s an almost impossible goal to arrive at just yet. Repealing the Eighth Amendment is about removing a statement from our Constitution that has led to women’s deaths and damaged health.
Only then can we truly say as a nation that we treat all of our citizens with equality and respect. Who doesn’t want that?
Read More: Irish comedian Aisling Bea talks to us about the repeal campaign and breaking taboos