In Women, We Must Trust
The Eighth Amendment of the constitution of Ireland states:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
At 15, almost a right of passage now for women in Ireland, I went to my first abortion march. It was focused around the death of Savita Halappanavar, a Hindu woman who — despite being told she would miscarry — was denied an abortion because “Ireland is a Catholic country” and the foetus, at that moment, still had a heartbeat. We walked sombrely and full of anger, finding our way to a moment of silence as we lit candles and listened to her husband speak. He didn’t cry, he didn’t shout; he was incredible.
It was one of the most deeply upsetting things I’ve experienced and it has stuck with me ever since.
Last October, I marched to repeal the Eighth Amendment with thousands of other women and men through the streets of Dublin, brushing off the pro-life supporters who shouted, “Murderers!” and literally held up and shook their terrified babies at us. It was a completely different experience to that of the march five years previous. The streets overflowed with people wearing the repeal jumper. Supporters stood on the sidelines cheering us on. It was colourful and loud and empowering.
The morning after this march, I woke to messages from friends and family, each of them attaching the same picture and asking if it was of me. A shock went up my spine and through my temples as I squinted at blurry photos on the cover of that morning’s Irish Times, my own face staring back at me.
The front page showed three pictures – each of a woman. My photo was in the middle. Next to each of our faces was a percentage and a quote.
To my left, an older woman beamed as she proudly clutched a giant love heart scrawled with “I’m Pro Life” — the ‘o’ replaced with another heart. Printed next to her was a large 8%: she represented the part of Ireland’s population who do not believe the Eighth Amendment should be repealed in any case.
On my right was a younger woman with short red hair and lipstick to match. She stood stoic, holding a glittering gold sign that read, “Abortion on demand without question.” She represented the 19 per cent demanding that the Eighth Amendment be repealed in all cases.
I stood, fist raised, wearing the iconic black repeal jumper. No sign, nothing out of the ordinary — “relatable” to the average Irish Times reader. Printed next me is the 55% my image is used to represent and a quote, which says, “I believe the Eighth Amendment should be repealed to allow for limited abortion in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality.”
I’m not sure who actually said this, but it wasn’t me and it’s not what I believe. I count myself among the 19 per cent, because the law we have now is too specific. It’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s confusing and it is devised against women by a gender it does not affect. Our current laws are circumstantial enough to deny anyone an abortion, and replacing them with another incredibly circumstantial law is simply not good enough.
When it comes to sex, abortion and rape, Ireland’s laws brim over with the stereotypical and conservative views that pop-culture associates us with. In 1981, at a time when abortion in Ireland was still punishable with life imprisonment, a law was passed changing the sentence for rape from two years to a maximum of only 10. A nice analogy for a woman’s place in our country.
While the UK was thanked in the ’50s for supplying the masses with the first lubricated condoms, it wasn’t until 1979 that Ireland finally legalised them at all, and even then only under a doctor’s prescription for the use of family planning. While millions of people around the world were enjoying all the safe sex they desired, the Irish were killing the mood, timidly entering doctor’s offices in the hopes of a condom prescription.
The UN’s human rights committee has said, “Ireland’s abortion legislation subjects women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and violates our human rights.” It seems we just cannot put women on the same level as men. We live in a country that tries to silence us, to brush us under the pews.
The Eighth Amendment was voted into our constitution by way of referendum in 1983. That year, my grandmother and thousands of other Irish women mourned the loss of their rights over their bodies. Those who were overseas received phone calls from their local priests, shaming them for not having come home to vote in favour of this destruction of their rights.
A doctor was fined £500 for the sale of 10 condoms to a patient. A 15-year-old girl — a year later, found dead in a grotto next to the body of her newborn child — concealed a pregnancy.
The Eighth Amendment makes the rights of a mother and her unborn child equal from conception. This creates a situation where, when faced with complications, the life of a mother and child must be decided between. This amendment has been fought against for years, during which time hundreds of lives have been lost or destroyed. And now, in 2017, we are fighting just as hard.
Countless cases have proven the idiocy and hypocrisy of the statute. Take, for instance, the case of Miss X, a 14-year-old girl who was impregnated by her rapist. After threatening to kill herself because of the pregnancy, Miss X tried to go to England to get an abortion there. But Ireland issued a high-court order to prevent her from travelling, because the only thing they cared about was that her foetus survived.
In 1992, in light of Miss X’s case, a law was eventually passed allowing women the right to travel outside of Ireland to have an abortion, and to seek information about doing so: the 13th Amendment. But the Eighth Amendment was not appealed.
Years later, when Miss X’s rapist had been released from prison and was busy assaulting another child, Ireland began to debate whether suicide on the mother’s behalf poses an adequate risk to life.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed.
This Act permits an abortion only if a woman is facing imminent death, including suicide. Should she seek an abortion on the basis of feeling suicidal, she must be assessed by up to six doctors before her fate is decided.
It is still illegal to have an abortion if a woman is carrying a foetus that will not survive outside the womb, and it is still illegal to have an abortion if a woman is pregnant due to rape.
Women in Ireland seeking an abortion now therefore have two options: travel to the UK, or take the abortion pill.
Every day, more than 10 Irish women are forced to travel to another country to get an abortion. They get no support from their own country, no closure, no funeral for their unborn child. Instead, they carry their shameful secret within a shoebox in the boot of their car, or anxiously await a parcel delivered to their door should they want a burial, which is common with cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
Those who cannot afford to travel, or asylum seekers who are simply not allowed to, must order the abortion pill. Sometimes this pill is obtainable through reliable companies, but sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes these pills make it through customs, but sometimes, they don’t.
After taking the pill, women will experience an incredible amount of pain and bleeding, and if they are 10 weeks pregnant, may even recognise the shape of the foetus in this frightening process. Not only that, but users cannot even confide in their doctors without the risk of being reported to the authorities for use of illegal medication.
And if news of their pill-taking does reach the authorities, Irish women can be sentenced to 14 years in prison, and Northern Irish women to life.
I have spoken to many people about their different stances in this life-altering debate, and what has upset me more than the conversations with pro-life supporters who think of abortion as some sort of murderous crime are the conversations with that 55% my face is printed next to.
Countless times, people have said to me that yes, of course they think abortion should be legal in Ireland – but within reason. That they believe that should abortion be legal in all cases, women would just abuse it.
At the march in October, what stood out to me the most was a phrase painted sloppily on cardboard among the crowds: “Trust Women”. For once, trust us to make decisions about our bodies and our lives. It’s an incredibly simple idea, and it breaks my heart that it’s still just that – an idea.
Cover via The Bogman’s Cannon; inset by the author