Hi from Guatemala!
I am writing to you because I will not make it home for May 25th to vote in Repeal the 8th referendum nor will be home beforehand to talk to you in person about how you are going to vote. As you have probably guessed from my recent social media activity the Repeal referendum is something I feel passionate about and though I have written a lot over the last year I have avoided entering in personal conversations with anyone at home because I am well aware just how controversial and emotive this issue can be. But as the date of the referendum fast approaches I felt that I couldn’t let it pass without sharing some of how I feel about this with my family and friends.
If Mum was still with us, and I asked her how she was going to vote come May, she would answer: “It’s a private ballot, I’m not telling you anything!” It was a terribly frustrating answer. But she would have said it with a grin, just as she did for the divorce referendum, so you would be left in no doubt how she was planning to vote.
Mum kept her cards close to her chest in all things and in politics she was no different. She rarely got into debates and never revealed who her party affiliations were, but there were hints to be found if you paid attention. Like the time Bertie Ahern came to our street and she basically told his aides to get lost, that she had no interest in meeting the Taoiseach. Or her devotion to Mary Robinson, her admiration for all Mariane Finucane did for Irish women of her generation and her tears over the X-Case. She read every Marian Keyes book and every Roisín Ingle article in the Irish Times.
She lived through momentus change in her lifetime, women won the right to work outside the home, the right to access contraception, the right to divorce and the decriminalising of homosexuality. Her death, almost ten years ago now, has meant that she did get to see the historic changes that having taken place in Ireland in towards achieving full bodily autonomy for Irish women and pregnant people. She missed the legions of Irish people on the streets demanding Repeal and sharing their own stories of the multiple and complex circumstances that led them to take the boat or board a plane to get an abortion abroad. They have broken decades of silence, stigma a shame that kept Irish women from speaking their truth and demanding change.
Mum would be 58 this year. There are so many times over the last few years when I have longed to sit down with a cup of Barry’s and some digestives and talk to her about the changes that have happened in Ireland. I wonder what it would have meant for a woman of her generation, born in the sixties and coming into adulthood and motherhood in the late seventies/early eighties when the 8th Amendment was passed, Ann Lovett died in Granard and Joanne Hayes lived nothing short of witch trial in the Kerry Babies case, to have seen these changes?
When it comes to politics I am very much not my mother’s daughter. I can hardly keep out of a political discussion and if I was in Ireland I would be on the streets campaigning for a yes vote. I would also be having these awkward and uncomfortable conversations with you in person. I am sure this is not a surprise to any of you. In light of the fact that I won’t be coming home, I’ve been away for the last two years and I am generally terrible when it comes to Skyping, I decided to put pen to paper, as it were. I don’t mean to preach nor come across as condescending so apologies in advance if it comes across this way. But I had to say something so you can chose to ignore or engage with me as you wish.
I know there may be some strong reservations when it comes to questions of abortion. I know there may be personal convictions that abortion is wrong. I may not agree with you but I respect your views. You can still hold those views and vote to Repeal the 8th Amendment.
Repealing the 8th amendment is not actually about abortion. It is about recognizing that Irish women’s, and pregnant people’s, lives matter. It is about giving them real choice in health care, allowing them to seek treatment if they are ill, allowing doctors to make decisions based on the best internationally recognised medical practice. Decisions that are not measured by constitutional law and fear of legal repercussions. It means allowing pregnant people the right to informed consent over treatment during pregnancy and procedures when giving birth. The right to refuse an unnecessary induction, cesarean or episiotomy and an informed choice on all aspects of health care.
Repealing the 8th means making sure that women and pregnant people in Ireland are not left lying in agony for three days while miscarrying a baby that was never going to survive, like Savita did. It means that women who have life threatening illnesses can continue treatment for those illnesses. It means that people whose babies have no chance of surviving outside the womb due to foetal abnormalities will not have to make the choice between traveling or carrying the pregnancy to term — when this in itself can present a risk to the life of the pregnant person. It means that pregnant and suicidal teen survivors of sexual violence can receive the treatment they need rather than being sectioned or taken into State care to prevent that. It means that we will no longer revisit the horrors of a a clinically dead woman being kept on life support, against the wishes of her family, because her 15 week old fetus still had a heart beat.
That is where the 8th Amendment has taken us: families taking the State to court over Christmas for the right to let their loved one die; women dying from miscarriages because legal considerations were prioritised over standard medical procedure.
These things have all happened in the last few years and will continue to happen if the 8th Amendment remains in place.
I am not going to lie and tell you that Repealing the 8th Amendment won’t lead to a more liberal abortion regime, because the most likely event is that it will. It will be a struggle I am sure, to be fought out in the Dáil, but the overwhelming popular opinion is that Ireland’s laws need to change.
That may not be a very palatable situation for everyone, but the cost of keeping the 8th Amendment is to high. Too many lives have already been lost and a failure to repeal the 8th Amendment means that more lives will continue to be lost. Avoidable tragedies like Savita will continue to make national and international headlines and Ireland will continue among the ranks of the countries with the worst access to reproductive rights in the world, like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
If you personally are against abortion, than why not reflect on the fact that countries with more liberal access to abortion actually have the lowest rates of abortion? Of course this goes hand in hand with comprehensive sex education for young people and affordable and accessible contraception. You could vote for Repeal and then campaign on these issues to ensure that the number of unplanned pregnancies drops and therefore the number of abortions also drops.
In countries where abortion is criminalised the number of abortions performed remains similar to those where it is legal, but those abortions are carried out in clandestine and unsafe conditions. In Guatemala, abortions practiced in unsafe conditions is the fourth highest cause of maternal death after hemorrhage, infection and pre-eclampsia. According the World Health Organisation the practice of unsafe abortions is the 5th most common cause of maternal death world wide. 50,000 women a year lose their lives because they seek an abortion in unsafe or unsanitary conditions. If they survive the proceedure and complications occur later on, shame stima and real fear of criminal consequences often keeps them from seeking help. In El Salvador women have been given life sentences for having miscarriages that were resgistered by medical staff as abortions.
The only thing that has prevented this situation from developing in Ireland is our proximity to England and the relative ease of getting abortion pills online. Even so we have see dead girls in grottos, women throwing themselves down the stairs, taking bleach or using coat hangers.
Thus, the 8th Amendment has not prevented abortion in Ireland, it has just pushed it overseas or keeping it invisible. It has just meant that Irish people are forced to seek this service outside our shores. In fact, since 1983 and estimated 150,000 Irish women have traveled to England to seek a termination for a multitude of reasons. Most of them are still living in Ireland, therefore we cannot keep saying that abortion does not exist here, we just export it.
You can argue that adoption is an option. But adoption would not have saved Savita’s life, nor would it allow women with cancer to continue their treatment, nor does it provide an answer to the the families of babies with fatal fetal abnormalities. Finally, it is not the answer to childless families seeking to adopt. This is an unfair burden to place on people in the situation of a crisis pregnancy, not everyone can or is willing to carry a pregnancy to term only to give up their baby, given the physical and emotional toll this can take on the pregnant person and the child. Ireland has a long and troubled history on the issue of forced adoption. If you have seen Philomena you will be somewhat familiar with the tragedy that this can involve.
In with many of the previous barriers to adoption now removed, most of Ireland’s adopted children come from abroad, as domestic adoption procedures are long and cumbersome, and foster care in Ireland is woeful. Therefore adoption still cannot be the principal solution to crisis pregnancies in Ireland.
Ultimately repealing the 8th is not about politics but compassion. It is about recognising the humanity of women and pregnant people, our right to bodily autonomy and the complexity of choices and situations that can lead someone to need an abortion, the understanding that although you may never choose to have an abortion, it is no longer tenable to deny other people that choice.
But don’t just take my word for it, before you vote in May inform yourselves on the facts about the 8th Amendment. But most of all read the true stories of the thousands of women who are impacted by the 8th Amendment and decide whether it’s time our country offered them, us, a real choice.
With love from Guatemala,
PS: You can find reliable, accurate and scientific information on all of these topics and more from the following sites:
Irish Women’s Stories
Roisín Ingle , Tara Flynn , Susan Cahill , Helen & Graham Linehan , In Her Shoes , Not At Home , Everyday Stories , Repeal Project , Termination for Medical Reasons, Every Woman Campaign , Her.ie , The Journal , Empowering and Lonely
Together For yes , AIMS Ireland , Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment , Midwives for Choice , Doctors for Choice , Parents for Choice , Grandparents for Choice , Artists for Repeal , Abortion Rights Campaign , The Transparent Referendum Initiative , Hunreal Issues , Irish Feminist Network , Irish Family Planning Association , National Women’s Council of Ireland
National and International Reports on the 8th Amendment
Repealing the 8th by Fiona de Londras
Repeal the 8th by Una Mullally
Autonomy by Kathy Darcy
If you’ve made it this far and you want to get involved in the Campaign there are many local groups across Ireland and others abroad from London to Berlin, New York to Sydney
Finally… here are some of my own articles on the subject: