On Friday 25 May 2018, for the first time in history, the people of the Republic of Ireland voted to make abortion a legal and safe healthcare procedure in their country by an overwhelming majority of 66.4%.
Voters were asked if they wanted to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Irish constitution and allow politicians to set the country’s abortion laws. The Eighth Amendment was introduced after a referendum in 1983. It “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” – essentially meaning the life of the woman and the unborn are seen as equal. Since 2013, terminations have only been allowed in Ireland where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother. Over 3,000 women travel abroad every year to seek an abortion, at their own cost, showing that criminalising abortion does not make it stop – it just makes it unsafe, even more traumatising and only open to those who can afford it, pushing the vulnerable in society into an even more vulnerable situation.
As a woman living in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk and where the criminal penalty for having or assisting a woman to have an unlawful abortion is up to life in prison – the referendum in the Republic of Ireland was one that was very close to my heart.
I was drawn deeper into the debate after reading some of the deeply upsetting stories on the In Her Shoes – Women of the Eighth Facebook page. The page initially started out as a place where undecided voters were offered the opportunity ‘take a walk in her shoes’ and quickly became “a platform for the voices of those that have been silenced by this country”.
While I have been pro-choice for a number of years, particularly for the so called ‘hard cases’ (rape, incest, foetal fatal abnormality) this page made me realise that every woman who shared their story has a made a choice for different reasons and while I don’t necessarily agree with every reason given, it made me realise that it is each and every woman’s choice to make that decision herself, based on her own circumstances. Stories of women bleeding on planes and boats alone on a daily basis, those leaving very much wanted babies behind in England because they could not afford to arrange for the body to be brought home, through to those who could not or did not know where or how to seek an abortion trying to bring an abortion on themselves at home, really struck me. While these stories were largely being told by women from the Republic of Ireland, the same will apply to women of Northern Ireland.
In the week leading up the referendum, the polls were showing that the vote could be very tight, which made me extremely fearful that the women of Ireland would miss their chance to be afforded the same choice that women have everywhere else in Europe (Malta being the only exception). However, late on Thursday evening I started reading the stories behind the Twitter hashtag #hometovote. Stories of Irish women and men who were travelling home from all over the world to vote, so that the women of Ireland would not have the make the opposite journey, really gave me hope and showed just how passionate and far-reaching the debate was. I would recommend taking some time to go through those tweets as they really show the Irish pulling together, offering to pay for plane tickets, giving lifts to far flung parts of Ireland and even offering beds for the night so everyone who wanted to would have a chance to vote.
The result of the referendum is a hugely significant day for Irish women. It represents decades of work by pro-choice campaigners and is proof that people are fair and compassionate and are willing to educate themselves to deal with the sensitive, divisive and very complex issue of abortion. It has also put the topic of abortion into the spotlight for women across the island of Ireland and as a result I have debated at length on the subject with friends and family over the last few months. I was raised a Catholic and was very much surrounded by ‘pro-life’ views throughout my upbringing. It was only as an adult, after leaving 14 years of Catholic education that my eyes started to open and I saw that not everything is black and white. I was surprised to hear that some of the people I had spoken to had not changed with me and held quite opposing views from mine. It became apparent that I was seen by some as being ‘pro-abortion’ which I don’t think anyone is! I would describe myself as ‘pro-choice’ in that I don’t want to see any abortions happen, but life isn’t perfect, no case is black or white and there are cases where abortion is needed and in those instances, I believe women should have a choice. I believe that repealing the Eighth Amendment is the only way women, who were already accessing abortions, can do so in a safe way, with the proper follow up care.
Now more than ever, Northern Ireland feels a place apart. Across the two islands of Ireland and Great Britain, Northern Ireland is the most socially conservative in terms of attitudes toward women’s and LBGT rights. In fact, Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe – in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.
While I am delighted for the women of the Republic of Ireland, their Northern Irish sisters still face a future of travel, or of unsafe and illegal abortions
A 2016 poll published by Amnesty International showed that “nearly three-quarters of people in Northern Ireland want abortion to be available in cases of rape and incest and when the foetus will not survive outside the womb” (Ref. Amnesty International). 71% of people agreed that having to travel to England for a lawful abortion has a disproportionately negative impact on women with low income. This came to the fore in April 2016, a when 21-year-old Northern Ireland woman was given a three-month suspended prison sentence after being found guilty of taking abortion pills to end her pregnancy. The court was told that the woman, aged 19 at the time, could not afford to travel to England to have an abortion.
While I am delighted for the women of the Republic of Ireland, their Northern Irish sisters still face a future of travel, or of unsafe and illegal abortions. Scrolling through my Instagram feed over the last few days has been uplifting as I saw the British people showing their support for the Irish. Now is the time to stand by us, the people of Northern Ireland. After a tight election in 2017, the UK Conservative Party came to an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland to support them on key votes in Parliament. This propelled the DUP’s strict conservative views on social policies into the limelight. As a result, in June 2017, the UK Government announced they would commit to cover the cost of abortion care for women from Northern Ireland who are treated in England. While this is a step in the right direction for those who cannot afford to travel, it does not address the fact that a basic human right is being denied to our women in their own country.
As Simon Harris, the Irish Minister for Health said, “women in crisis pregnancy have been told take the plane, take the boat, today we tell them; take our hand”. I appeal to the people of Great Britain and Ireland to extend that hand to the women of Northern Ireland.
Main image Copyright (c) 2018, Getty Images, via Time Magazine