In January, the Irish Taoiseach announced that there would be a referendum on whether the Eighth Amendment – the part of the Irish constitution that makes abortion illegal in almost every circumstance – should be repealed. Since then, I have been talking openly about an abortion I had four years ago while I was living in the UK.
I thought it was important to join the women who were working hard to prove that abortion isn’t an abstract problem, something that happens to other people. And I knew that I was in a privileged position to do so: I had friends and family and colleagues who would support me.
So many Irish women – women who were forced to travel from their country to access legal terminations in the UK or Europe – still feel silenced in Ireland. The stigma is still too great, the shame too intense, especially if the “abortion story” is deemed unsympathetic – that is, if it’s a story about a crisis pregnancy as opposed to an abortion necessitated through a health emergency or a rape. It sounds lofty or self-aggrandising but, by talking about the abortion I had, I wanted to send a little signal to other women who have been through a similar experience. I wanted to say: I know you might not be able to talk about it right now but I can hear you anyway.
When I have told my story, people have been kind and compassionate and generous. I have received long emails and little notes and lots of supportive hugs. But still, when I landed in Ireland last Friday, going home for the first time since I’ve started speaking about this, I felt nervous. We all know that on social media, we are surrounded by people who think like us – and so I was concerned about what lay beyond the Repeal stickers and the Together For Yes hashtags.
As women made their way into a maternity hospital – to get a scan or to deliver an early baby – they were confronted with photos of blood and foetuses
Immediately, I was affronted by the No side (it’s Yes to repeal the Eighth and allow the government to legislate for abortion up to 12 weeks; No to retain the Eighth and for abortion to continue to be illegal). On the bus from the airport into the city centre, I was sitting directly in front of a woman wearing two No badges – one on her jacket and one on her bag. I didn’t pay her much attention until she began talking loudly on the phone – her conversation, which could be heard clearly, was about the campaign. She spoke of “PR spin” and “the Repealers’ lies” and “winning this thing by 95 per cent”. I looked straight ahead but when she began talking about a “doctor who must have committed mass murder” and a “man who killed his own kids”, I turned around.
I was shaking as I said: “Sorry, could you speak a little quieter please?”
As I turned back, she started calling me a “bully” and a “lunatic” and a “dirtbag”. I didn’t look at her again. The words landed in the air, amid a French stag party and a couple on a mini break and a little girl holding her mum’s hand. I leaned my head against the bus window, looking at the trees and the rows of identical houses going past. Then, as the bus turned up along the Liffey, all I could see were posters. They hung from every post and pole, urging Yes and No.
The Yes posters generally featured text – about women’s health and providing care and compassion – alongside abstract imagery. The No posters usually featured photos, of foetuses in the womb, or sometimes of babies, five or six months old. It's as though you are being asked to pick a side – women or babies. It’s perhaps no surprise that it's come to this – ever since the Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983, it has felt that Ireland’s abortion law encourages an unworkable, impossible tension between the life of a woman and the embryo or foetus. The Amendment clearly states that the life of "the unborn" is equal to the life of a pregnant woman, so the moment an Irish woman becomes pregnant, her own rights are compromised, dangerously shared. The state has created a situation where, in cases of medical emergency, a doctor must consider the rights of an unviable foetus to be equal to those of a 31-year-old woman.
Sometimes, it seems as though some No voters, or even those who are "undecided", think that to be a pro-choice woman is to be anti-baby. Of course, it’s ridiculous – it’s preposterous and insulting and upsetting, but it’s there, we can feel it. At the weekend, one friend told me about a woman who said: “I’m voting No. You’ll understand when you’re a mother.” Another pro-Repeal woman told me that she had been made to feel uncomfortable at a baby shower.
A heinous conclusion of this pattern of thinking occurred earlier this week when No advocates erected signs with graphic imagery outside the maternity hospitals in Dublin. As women made their way into a maternity hospital – to get a scan because they were worried about their pregnancy or to deliver an early baby or to find out that they were miscarrying – they were confronted with photos of blood and foetuses.
The official No campaign has distanced itself from the signs outside hospitals, but signs featuring foetuses away from hospitals are deemed acceptable – even when they are inaccurate and misleading.
To the No campaign, it seems that any woman who believes that abortion should be legal has lost the right to be upset by a graphic image of a foetus. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be pro-choice. I care about foetuses; I care about babies; I long for my own baby. But I also know that for lots of reasons, women cannot always continue with pregnancy. I know that even in countries where abortion is illegal, abortion happens; at least 10 Irish women make the decision to end a pregnancy every day – they travel or they order pills illegally.
In exactly three weeks, just about this time, I’ll be boarding a plane to Ireland to witness this historic referendum. I’ll be landing in Dublin again. Getting on that bus again. That journey will be hard, but not as difficult as the ones made by the women forced to travel to access safe and legal abortion. I will be thinking of the teenage asylum seeker forced to give birth by caesarean section because she couldn’t travel. I will be thinking of the couples facing fatal foetal-abnormality diagnoses in a country that doesn’t allow a humane ending to such pregnancies.
And I will be hoping that Irish people can see past the viciousness of a No campaign that has sought to continue a bitter divide, an unnatural and unworkable opposition.