Today voters in the Republic of Ireland go to the polls to decide whether or not to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which enshrines ‘equal right to life’ to unborn foetuses as to pregnant women. The outcome of the referendum will decide whether women in Ireland have access to safe, legal abortions, or whether they will have to continue making perilous journeys abroad to access basic healthcare. Every day an average of twelve women in Ireland have an abortion, either by travelling overseas or by taking illegal abortion pills bought online.
Abortion is technically legal in Ireland in ‘extreme circumstances’, for instance in cases where there is a risk of death to the pregnant patient or fatal foetal abnormality. But as the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar demonstrates, these exemptions mean next to nothing in practice. On 28th October, 2012 Savita died, following 6 days of miscarriage-induced bleeding and sepsis, galvanising a whole new generation of activists against the 8th amendment. Savita’s death proved that assurances that the law was there to protect the ‘mother’ were meaningless, and this misogynist legislation has real, lethal consequences.
Although the 8th Amendment was introduced in 1983, abortion was already illegal in Ireland before this. What the 8th Amendment created was a constitutional protection for the foetal ‘right to life’. The wording of the amendment specifies the ‘equal right to life of the mother and the unborn’, but what has not been enforced is the ‘equal right to life […] as far as is practicable’. Legal ambiguity and the lack of statutory legislation has meant that doctors are too afraid to even consider following through with terminations in extreme circumstances, since they face criminal sentences (up to 14 years in prison) if they do. There have been deaths in Ireland as a result of a lack of legislation and legal protection for doctors, even when they see termination as the correct course of action.
A further consequence of the current situation and the difficulty of accessing safe abortions is that those women who do make the decision to travel abroad for terminations often end up doing so far later than is medically advisable. A total of 1 in 7 of those travelling across the water to access abortions end up doing so far later than is safe. In Britain, meanwhile, 92% of abortions happen before 13 weeks, since there isn’t the stress and difficulty of planning travel or facing potential imprisonment. Those taking illegal abortion pills themselves or helping others access the pills face up to 14 years in prison. As it stands this means that women face shame and stigma, making potentially traumatic decisions alone and without support and risking criminalisation and prison time if they reach out for help.
The Catholic Church has played a massive role in lobbying for and maintaining a ban on abortion, and Irish society has historically had a more conservative weighting, due in no small part to the continual emigration of younger generations. After the economic crash of 2008, however, emigration has become less possible for many Irish citizens, and this is reflected in a generation swelling the ranks of Irish student movements, many of whom were radicalised by the successful campaign for Equal Marriage in May 2015.
Blame for the conservative nature of Irish society must be directed squarely with the legacy of British colonialism. After the Irish Civil War in 1922 Ireland returned a tremendously conservative government which backed the partition Treaty and suppressed further socialist resistance to British rule. The first years of the Irish revolution, from the Dublin Lock-out up to the Civil War, involved enormous participation from women revolutionaries. Constance Markievicz was one of the revolutionaries to take part in the Easter Rising in 1916, and was elected as the first woman MP in 1918 from her cell in Holloway Prison. The loss and suffering that marked the final years of British rule in Ireland proved an enormous set back for women’s struggle, and the brutality of colonial oppression destroyed many of the institutions enabling women’s rights. The final treaty with Britain entrenched the power of the Catholic Church and marginalised the socialist revolutionaries previously at the forefront of the Irish revolution. In the North of Ireland the legacy of British colonialism is even more stark. The Good Friday Agreement – effectively the guarantor of continued British occupation – ensures that Equal Marriage and abortion remain illegal, and progressive voices are suppressed. The British ‘resolution’ to conflict in Ireland was to entrench the power of the reactionary sectarian forces in Irish politics in the name of ‘power-sharing’ and solidify a reactionary status quo to appease colonialist paramilitaries. Thanks to British rule and the Good Friday Agreement, women in the North will continue to be denied access to safe and legal abortions, whichever way today’s vote goes in the Republic of Ireland.
Despite this, the campaign to Repeal the 8th has seen a massive amount of cross-border solidarity. In the North the struggle is still limited to the demand for de-criminalisation of abortion, but campaigners from the North have travelled in vast numbers to help canvass for the referendum – recognising a common struggle which disproportionately affects young, working-class Irish citizens, as well as migrants and refugees. In addition, there has been a huge amount of solidarity with the movement for abortion rights in Poland, with marches on the Polish embassy and delegates from Poland speaking at Irish rallies and vice versa. The Abortion Rights Campaign was formed five years ago, in July 2012, but Alliance for Choice and similar groups have been working consistently since the 1990’s to push for women’s right to choose. British repression and paramilitary violence during the Troubles, however, placed massive obstacles in the way of these campaigns, and many campaigners were forced to subordinate their struggle for safe and legal abortion in the context of the struggle against British occupation.
Abortions happen regardless of whether they are ‘legal’, and the effect so far of the 8th Amendment has simply been for Ireland to ‘export’ the problem of its reactionary legislation, with over 170,000 travelling from Ireland to receive abortions between 1990 and 2016. It’s important to see beyond a narrative which paints the referendum simply as a ‘generational divide’. Through canvassing, you meet older people who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s and didn’t have the option of flying abroad to have abortions, and as a result have been forced to go through with unwanted pregnancies. They’ve vocally supported the Repeal campaign and said that they never want younger generations to have to go through what they went through. The suffering of forced pregnancies have to become a thing of the past.
The strategy of the anti-choice campaign has been incredibly underhand, ranging from scare tactics to outright lies and misinformation. Posters have falsely claimed that 1 in 5 babies in England are aborted and advised people to vote ‘No’ if they are uncomfortable at the prospect of abortion at 6 months, despite the fact that the current proposition would only legalise abortion for up to 12 weeks. Anti-choice campaigners have also actively sought out people that came to regret their abortions in order to exceptionalise them as cautionary tales of the ‘psychological trauma’ of termination. We need to be clear, abortion can be a traumatising experience, but that is overwhelmingly due to the stigma, shame and persecution meted out on those who choose to terminate their pregnancies. People who regret abortions regret various things; they regret ‘letting their family down’ or ‘letting society down’ and if we are concerned about the traumatising effects of abortion, then we need to do all we can to remove the judgement and stigma which surrounds it.
It’s also important that we’re not just campaigning for safe and legal abortions, we’re campaigning for better healthcare, and better childcare; we campaign for people who choose to have families, and people who choose not to. We still have a long way to go in fighting misogyny in Irish society and the systematic neglect of women in the Irish healthcare system in the recent cervical smear scandal, or the acquittal of Paddy Jackson demonstrates that the fight against sexism cannot let up.
If the 8th Amendment is repealed today it will be to the absolute embarrassment of the British state and the Government of Stormont. It will reveal the utterly perverse policies which continue under British rule. It used to be the case, up until the referendum on Equal Marriage in 2015, that many in the North of Ireland saw themselves as more socially progressive on a range of issues, but recent events suggest that the opposite is true. So-called moderate parties, like the SDLP, who talk up their record of fighting for civil liberties in the North refused to stand up for reproductive rights and justifiably lost the majority of their MPs. Sinn Fein are backing the repeal campaign in the Republic of Ireland, but opposing reproductive rights in the North. This referendum is shining a harsher light on the increasing absurdity of Irish politics and the legacy of colonialism and partition. There is a real opportunity for this vote to unite the people of Ireland, across the 32 counties, to recognise that the outdated institutions of Stormont and the Irish state aren’t fit for purpose and to demand something different. This vote is not a single issue, it encompasses the legacy of colonialism and the oppressive structures of state.
But we also have to realise that this is only the first part of the struggle. Even if we win the vote today it won’t mean that we can stop fighting, because unfortunately there will always be forces in society which stand against women’s right to choose and against liberation. Even in Britain, where abortion has been legal since 1967, women are still shamed and stigmatised, we still have crowds outside abortion clinics harassing women for their choice to terminate their pregnancies, and just because abortion may be legal, doesn’t mean that women have the physical and psychological safety or the support that they deserve when making these decisions. It is easy for observers in mainland Britain to pretend that this is something very distant, that doesn’t have anything to do with them. It might be comforting for British observers to indulge racist stereotypes about ‘Irish backwardness’ but as the situation in the North shows clearly, the British government holds a massive proportion of the blame for the appalling situation Irish women currently find themselves in. If voters choose to repeal the 8th Amendment today, it will mean a lot of things; it will be an opportunity for us to trust each other, it will be a vote against shame, stigma and forced pregnancies, and it will be another chapter in the long struggle to unpick the legacy of British imperialism.