Of Ireland: Why It Was Vital To Repeal The Eighth Amendment
On the 25th of May, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Irish constitution. This indicates a huge shift in the way the country perceives the position and rights of women. This is the first of a three-part series where Emily O’Dowd talks about her experiences of being a woman in Ireland before, during, and after the campaign to repeal the eighth.
The Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, inserted in 1983, granted equal importance to the lives of the unborn and the mother carrying it. This in effect outlawed abortion in almost all circumstances, apart from when the life of the mother was at substantial risk, as provided for by a 2013 law. When this was in place, a pregnant person, for whatever reason no longer wished to be, had no choice other than travelling to England, or ordering abortion pills online, facing a maximum of 14 years in prison.
The Eighth Amendment was inserted into the constitution eleven long years before I was born, and I lived unawares of how it could impact on my bodily autonomy for most of my life. The first time I can recall being aware of what an abortion was, was watching Juno –in which it was portrayed as the obvious wrong choice, sure why doesn’t she give it up for adoption instead? Catholic-school me didn’t question the implicit judgement of women’s choices in that instance. The next was Grey’s Anatomy when I was 17. Christina Yang deciding to have an abortion on the basis of a) not wanting a child, and b) prioritising her career. That was something that I too, didn’t question – because I didn’t think it was relevant to my life at all. Back then, abortion was an American issue. It didn’t happen over in Ireland. Or so we liked to pretend.
Between 1983 and 2016, it is estimated that 168,703 women travelled from Ireland to the UK to receive what should have been considered basic healthcare in their own country but was instead seen as a shameful. The latest figures, which are likely an underestimate, is that every day, nine women travel from Ireland to the UK to get an abortion, with an additional three taking an abortion pill. The term “get the boat” was in my vocabulary long before I knew what a toll that secrecy and hypocrisy could take on a woman. We didn’t have abortions in Ireland, instead our moral country forced women to scrape money together, run to England under the pretence of a shopping trip, or visiting a friend, and return, pale, fragile, and filled with the fear of public judgement for what should be a private decision.
Since I was 17, I have learned a lot about what it means to be a woman in Ireland. For years, it has meant a lack of control over what happens to your body. It has meant being forced to live in a Magdalene laundry if you were “foolish” enough to be pregnant outside of marriage, and then give up your child for adoption, your experiences never to be spoken about again. It has meant having the parish priest call around to the house if you and your husband hadn’t had a child recently – were you denying him his marital rights? It has meant being shamed for having children, for not having children, for losing a child. It has meant living in an all-too-real version of The Handmaids Tale, in a repressive, restrictive society of our own making (unsurprisingly, I have yet to catch up on that series, having seen so many parallels in my own country in 2018). It has meant all of these things and more, and only now are we beginning to openly speak about these injustices.
There have been countless stories of women being mistreated, judged, and put at serious risk, over the past 35 years plus, and there was very little indication that anything would change, until women started speaking up. It took people telling their heart-breaking stories, of scared girls, distraught parents with babies doomed to die before birth, and women with serious illnesses that could not be treated while they remained pregnant. It took women like Tara Flynn and Arlette Lyons, for the Irish people, myself included, to take their heads out of the sand and realise that something needed to change. That we could no longer try to detain suicidal children to prevent them from travelling for an abortion, we could no longer let girls die on the side of the road after giving birth, and we could no longer force parents to have their child’s remains couriered from the UK. Something had to change.
Since learning more about what the Eighth Amendment meant for women in Ireland and moving to Edinburgh to complete my Masters, there is one moment that has stuck in my head. I knew in theory how restrictive Ireland’s laws were compared to other western countries, however it was as I was opening the students’ union welcome booklet that it really hit home. Right there, amongst the tips on study stress, uni bars, and contraception, was information on “what to do if you need an abortion”. It wasn’t obfuscated, hidden under layers of “crisis pregnancy” “advice” and “chaplaincy”, but there, clear as day, in the health section. That, for me, illuminated how incredibly backwards Ireland remained while the Eighth Amendment stood. I knew that if I moved back to Ireland (which I have done since completing my Masters), I would feel very unsafe and unsupported should I at any point, for any reason, need to terminate a pregnancy. That was when I knew I had to get involved, and not just wait for this change to happen by itself.
I was far from alone in this – the campaign to repeal the Eighth was fought at a grassroots level, by women and people who were no longer happy for this archaic and oppressive law to continue ruling over women’s bodies. In the process, a new, more compassionate Ireland, has revealed itself, and suddenly, I feel like there is potential and momentum for building a more equal society.
In the next article, I will discuss my personal experiences of the campaign, the highs and lows, and how I slowly began to realise that Ireland might be changing for the better.
In the meantime, I’m going to catch up on The Handmaid’s Tale.