I travel to Ireland often and love it more than almost anywhere. I love the spirited, intelligent and funny women I invariably meet at work there, the food, culture, outstanding natural and architectural beauty, the warmth and wit of its people. I become so enchanted that, unfailingly, I fantasise on each trip about moving my family to Dublin or Galway – right up until the moment I board the plane home and wonder which of my fellow passengers sits scared, ashamed and vulnerable, having been forced to make the deeply traumatic, lonely, costly and uncomfortable journey to an English clinic to obtain an abortion that should be her legal and human right at home. I’m sickened by the barbarism, cruelty and sheer misogyny of a country that exiles its girls and women in crisis. Girls and women almost exactly like us.
This could, and must, change. This Friday, 25 May, the people of Ireland will vote in a referendum on whether the Eighth Amendment should be removed from the nation’s constitution – and the polls are alarmingly close. Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland, but the amendment, added and passed by referendum only in 1983, was to reinforce the country’s position following increasing tolerance and progressive abortion laws in Britain and the US. The Eighth Amendment says: “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.”
In plain language, abortion in Ireland is illegal in almost all circumstances except when a woman’s life is in clear and serious danger (and “life” is meant literally, by no means extending to her “health”, physical or emotional. The risk, for example, of blindness, mental illness, PTSD, delayed cancer treatment or debilitating pain is of no legal consequence). In ideological terms, the amendment means that a woman has exactly the same right to life as an unborn baby, that a doctor must treat a pregnancy as two distinct patients of wholly equal standing. In practice, it means women have no more entitlement to life than an egg, which she must incubate to full term come almost what may, however unviable or forcefully fertilised.
In Ireland, a pregnancy caused by the rape of a woman or child must stand. A pregnancy imposed on a woman by a coercive or abusive partner must stand. A baby who will surely die of natural causes, or one that will be born with severe anomalies, must be carried until nature decides otherwise, the additional and significant risk of infection and complication hanging over it (only when life-threatening infection sets in can doctors intervene and hope they’re in time). A pregnancy that dramatically decreases health or wellbeing to either party must continue to term. Women carrying desperately wanted babies who will never breathe unaided are forced to deliver nonetheless. This is Ireland, a country one hour’s cheap flight away, where people watch much the same telly, buy the same stuff, wear the same clothes as we do, and where, in an international first, equal marriage was passed by popular vote in 2015.
It’s a country that also rightly acknowledges the necessity of safe abortion, even in the constitution that prohibits it. It objects only to abortion happening legally and safely on its own turf. And so, while as few Irish women as ever are granted an abortion on home soil because their lives would surely end without one (some 20-25 cases per year), the conflicted amendment greenlights the travel of over 3,500 women per year for outsourced abortions (usually in England and Wales), at their massive inconvenience, prohibitive cost (around £1,000 in travel, accommodation and medical costs) and deep, societal shame.
Abortion in Ireland exists. The government, Church and people know it. Abortion is not only an ideological and moral issue, but an ever-present public-health issue
And yet, under this draconian system, the women who make it on to a plane are the lucky ones. Those who can’t afford the operation or the time off, or who can’t explain their absence to others, either carry their unwanted baby to term or risk up to 14 years in jail to buy illegal abortion pills online. And because anyone who aids and abets a woman in obtaining or administering the drugs faces the same punishment, she will, in all likelihood, take the tablet alone and anxious, with no medical or emotional assistance, at significant risk to her health. Though the true number of secret abortions is unknown, it’s estimated that three women take these tablets per day. Irish Customs and Excise seize around 1,500 pills per year. It’s reasonable to assume that, as a consequence, a similar number of women were denied the opportunity of ending their pregnancy and that some were forced to engage in even riskier methods of termination or secret birth (there are recorded cases of young Irish women and children delivering stillborn babies outdoors, then dying alone). Despite the extremely difficult and stressful conditions in which Irish women find themselves, some 87 per cent who’ve undergone abortions do not regret their decision.
Abortion in Ireland exists. The government, Church and people know it. Abortion is not only an ideological and moral issue, but an ever-present public-health issue. In voting Yes to repeal the Eighth, people won’t be voting for abortions to happen. They already do happen, while a country looks the other way. People are not even being asked to approve of abortion, or to seek an abortion, or even to think it’s right. They’re being asked to allow women in crisis to make their own decisions, to have autonomy over their own bodies, to not have to suffer the trauma of carrying a dying baby, or a rapist’s baby, or a relative’s baby, or one that is desperately unwell, or causing serious mental or physical unwellness to its mother, and end her pregnancy before the 12th week. They’re being asked to acknowledge the basic human right of the many thousands of Irish women already obtaining abortions to be safe, healthy and at home where they belong. None of this is possible without the removal from Ireland’s constitution of the Eighth Amendment. Any other outcome will be to Ireland’s eternal shame.