Later this month, the people of the Republic of Ireland will go to the polls to vote in a referendum that will, hopefully, end the criminalisation of abortion there.1 The law as it stands forced just under 4,000 women, in 2016 alone, to travel from Ireland and Northern Ireland to terminate a pregnancy in England or Wales. Others will have resorted to dangerous do-it-yourself versions. Many die, some are left infertile, others develop serious gynaecological problems. Then there’s the emotional trauma most have to deal with.
But on 25 May, the people have the opportunity to change this. They can vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment of Ireland’s constitution, which, essentially, affords a foetus the same rights as the woman – or girl – who is pregnant with it.2
Abortion has been a criminal offence since 1861. The amendment was voted in by referendum in 1983 when worries grew amid the Right and the Catholic church that it might be legalised. The Eighth ensured that terminations would only be allowed in circumstances where the life – as distinct from the health – of a pregnant woman was at risk. It was passed by 67% for and 33% against on a 53% turnout following an acrimonious campaign.
The campaign for repealing it has rapidly picked up steam in recent years, though, spurred on by several terrible stories of fatal pregnancies, such as that of Savita Halappanavar. The young dentist died in a Galway hospital after she was refused a termination despite the fact that her life was in danger, having been told that “this is a Catholic country”.
Some would also argue that the campaign was given a shot in the arm in 2015, following the referendum that legalised same-sex marriage. This was seen as something of a social revolution and a sign that Ireland, with its social politics for so long led by the church, was breaking free of that strangle-hold.
But to me, it was nothing of the sort. Although the right to marry will definitely benefit some lesbians and gay men, I believe that marriage was extended to same-sex couples in order to curtail them within an extremely conservative institution. Marriage has long been a way of keeping women quiet – even those of us who are lesbians. In the UK, when then prime minister David Cameron announced that he is in favour of equal marriage “not in spite of being a Conservative but because I am a Conservative”, it spoke volumes.
So, no, I don’t believe Ireland is growing more liberal. The fact of the matter is, that there are many men in countries around the world who consider it their right to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body. And the Republic of Ireland is no different from Spain, or Poland. This whole debate is about preventing us from taking control of our ovaries, and the whole premise that abortion is wrong is built on misogyny.
Sure, there are women who campaign against abortion, and who seek to deny other women rights over their own bodies. And often the vehicle for delivering anti-abortion sentiment, or introducing legislation preventing the termination of unwanted pregnancies, is religion. But let’s be in no doubt, the criminalising of it is about upholding the patriarchal status quo.
No one likes abortion, and those of us who are pro-choice wish it did not have to exist. But the anti-abortionists who hide behind religion, and refer to their position as ‘pro-life’ are disingenuous to say the very least. It is hard not to think that if it were the men who got pregnant, abortion would be widely and freely available.
That’s why, in my view, asking an entire country to decide whether women should be ‘allowed’ to terminate a pregnancy is abhorrent. Fifty per cent of the referendum’s votes will go to those who cannot get pregnant, cannot give birth, and who have no fear of becoming pregnant either by accident or by rape. Men given the right to vote can choose not to take responsibility for any pregnancies they may cause, with no fear of any consquences.
This is far from the case for women. But is that a surprise, in the country where the Catholic Church is never far from view, in a country where “fallen women” were still being hidden away in Magdalene laundries until as recently as 1996. As Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, said in a speech about women’s involvement in the Church at a conference in Rome, the Catholic Church is one of the last major bastions of misogyny. And the Church is still very much involved in issues of state in Ireland. Which is why the idea of a liberal Ireland needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Just look at the way the law still treats women. Ireland still has no statutory agency to collect and enforce child maintenance, which leaves women having to go through the courts to apply. Women cannot obtain passports in Ireland for their children without the fathers’ signature. Parenting is still a matter of choice for Irish men with few legal or social sanctions for those who ignore its responsibilities. Despite the fact the pregnancies are often forced upon women and even girls, the state demands these women be nothing more than incubators. Enforced pregnancy maintains male control over women via the state with the Church’s blessing.
But a woman should not have to ask for permission to take control of her body or life. Whether it is her right to divorce, terminate a pregnancy, or use contraception to prevent one, she should be free to choose.