The abortion referendum is an empathy test for Ireland

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Something vitally important to the lives and health of Irish women is happening this month in Ireland. On May 25th, voters will finally have the chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that has allowed the country to deny essential healthcare to generations of women.

I will be in Ireland for the vote and I hope to witness the end of a deep-rooted tradition of silencing and shaming women. This tradition has always been dependent on indifference to female suffering.

Well it’s harder to be indifferent when people start speaking their truth openly. One of the positive outcomes of the referendum debate is that so many Irish women and couples are coming forward to speak out about how the amendment has affected them. The referendum has become an empathy test for the nation.

Just like women in every country in the world, Irish women need abortion, preferably provided with compassion as early as possible in the pregnancy. But unlike women in most Western countries, Irish women are criminalised if they seek abortion. The same applies to women in Northern Ireland. So they have to travel in secret to Britain, if they can afford it, or they buy pills online and go through the termination without medical supervision, afraid to seek help if anything goes wrong.

The Irish abortion ban means fear and danger for Irish women, it means additional stress, delay and expense at a time of crisis. This is nothing less than punishment and it has worked for this long because it fits neatly with the cultural legacy of strict social control of women’s fertility.  

The Eighth Amendment of 1983 acknowledges the right to life of “the unborn” without any definition. It says that the state guarantees in its laws to respect, defend and vindicate that right, with “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”.

This wording does not just mean that no regular abortion services can be made available in Ireland, it also enforces callous and dangerous restrictions in prenatal and maternity care when patients are at their most vulnerable.  

Currently, a pregnant woman or child with a physical illness or experiencing a medical emergency may only have a termination in Ireland if there is a “real and substantial risk” to her life if she does not have a termination. The same applies to suicidal women and girls. This law dictates everything from the management of miscarrying patients and cases of fatal foetal abnormality to the management of labour in mothers about to deliver full term healthy babies.

In the case of a miscarriage that drags on for days, doctors do not intervene as long as there is a heartbeat, no matter how unwell the patient is. They can only perform a D&C if the woman reaches the point where her life is in danger. Unless, as in the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012, they miss that window between extreme suffering and impending death and the woman dies of sepsis.

Suffering is fine. The woman may suffer any degree of physical or mental anguish but as long as her life is not in imminent danger, it doesn’t count. The woman’s health or wellbeing during or after pregnancy does not count. The unborn’s right to life trumps her right to safety or peace of mind from day one.  

The same rules apply to everyone, from a child of 12 in care to a 45-year-old mother of four, regardless of whether she is a rape victim, a cancer patient whose treatment must be suspended or someone with a serious illness made worse by pregnancy. Legally, nothing in the woman’s circumstances matters while she is pregnant. That this injustice has been tolerated for so long is simply staggering.

Switzerland, where I live, allows unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and has one of the lowest rates of abortion in the world. The Irish abortion rate cannot even be accurately measured because it is shrouded in secrecy and illegality, even more so since abortion pills became available. You cannot help people if you criminalise them.

The Eighth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1983 in a context where abortion was already illegal and there was no discernible movement to change that. At that time, up to 4,000 Irish women were travelling to England per year to avail of terminations. Those lonely journeys have continued and are still happening this month and every month.  

The amendment was a pre-emptive strike and a highly effective one too. The complicated realities of unwanted pregnancy, pregnancy loss, fatal foetal abnormality, pregnancy by rape, pregnancy with serious illness, child pregnancy – all of it disregarded in one stroke.

I was 11 years old when this happened. My parents campaigned against the Eighth then and my mother and sister carry on the fight now in the Together4Yes campaign. As a non-resident I can no longer vote in Ireland. But I am counting on my fellow countrywomen and countrymen to show they care and strike back for all our women and girls.

Repeal the 8th

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