Today I attended a protest march for women’s reproductive rights, through the streets of the nation’s capital. More specifically it was a march to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution.
Ireland is a constitutional democracy. Our current constitution was written in the 1930s – while Ireland was still the Free State. It lays out the rights and responsibilities we have as citizens. Any laws written by the government which could be in contradiction to the constitution can only be valid, after holding a referendum which is passed by the majority of the electorate.
Abortion has never been legal in Ireland. However in 1983, certain right wing religious groups demanded that an abortion ban be codified into the constitution. The referendum was passed by an overwhelming majority. And the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution became the law of the land. Abortion was illegal in all circumstances.
The Ireland of 1983 was a different country to what it is now. Homosexuality was illegal; divorce was illegal, contraception was available in very limited circumstances. Ireland was a catholic country for catholic people, and if you dared to fall outside the parameters of what was deemed moral and acceptable then it was a cold, hard place.
The result of the 1983 referendum gave Ireland the dubious honour of being the most restrictive place in the world in terms of abortion rights.
British telephone directories were removed from libraries as they contained the numbers of family planning services that provided abortions. Cosmopolitan magazine – printed in England but sold also in Ireland – had blanked out pages at the back, where in the English editions there were adverts for women’s sexual health clinics that provided abortions.
An Irish woman traveling to England for an abortion was breaking the law. A pregnant woman was legally obliged to carry the pregnancy to term. The unborn had more human rights than the woman carrying it.
In 1992 a fourteen year old girl was raped by a family friend and got pregnant as a result. Her parents took her to England for an abortion. They asked if the foetal tissue could be used as evidence in the rape prosecution. The Irish Attorney General quickly informed them that if the abortion went ahead then it was a crime for which the girl and her parents would be prosecuted. It became known as the X case. It caused an uproar.
The case went to trial quickly and the judges found that if a woman’s life was at risk – whether by physical of psychological means – by continuing the pregnancy, then abortion was in fact legal. A further referendum was held where the public deemed it legal for a woman to travel for abortion and to be allowed access to information on abortion abroad.
Even though it was technically legal for Irish doctors to perform abortions when the pregnant woman’s life was at risk, successive governments refused to legislate for this eventuality. This was too hot a topic for them to touch. Parish pump politics is the way things work in Ireland. A controversial topic like family planning might cost them votes.
And sure, couldn’t those fallen women just go to England, and let England deal with it. An English solution to an Irish problem.
In 2012 a thirty one year old pregnant woman Savita Halappanavar died from septicaemia while pregnant. She had been advised that termination of the pregnancy could have saved her life. The hospital in Galway refused to carry out the procedure. It was illegal.
Since then every year there has been a protest march demanding that another referendum be held to repeal the 8th Amendment.
The movement is growing. After Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage, by popular vote, it seems that the time is right to rid the constitution of this toxic amendment.
British figures indicate that on average eleven Irish women avail of abortion services every day in England. Those are merely the ones that provide an Irish address. The women who travel to Holland or elsewhere are not included in the figure of 5000 women every year.
The day was miserable, with heavy rain. So it was heartening to see the thousands of people gathered at the Garden of Remembrance to march through town to demand a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment.
It is a route I know well – the same one used each year for the Gay Pride Parade. The mood was more sombre however. The Pride Parade has become a festive occasion, a happy occasion for celebration. This one was angrier. The government – like all previous governments is too lily-livered and spineless to address the reality that Irish women are being forced to travel abroad, at enormous expense, to avail of services legally available elsewhere. The fact that the United Nations has repeatedly condemned Ireland’s abortion restrictions as being in violation of women’s rights seems to mean nothing to them.
Last year’s marriage referendum was not actually required – nowhere in the constitution banned same sex marriage, but our pathetic government decided that minority civil rights was a matter for public vote. Sadly as the abortion ban is specifically written into the constitution, the only means of removing it is via referendum. So what does our tragic government do – they’ve decided to hold a citizen’s convention to decide what to do about abortion. They know that a referendum is the only possible outcome. But by wasting millions on this convention, they can kick the issue into the future. They couldn’t be dealing with it themselves. They have their parliamentary seats to protect.
Being male – and a gay male at that – abortion is not an issue that has any real personal relevance to my life. Even if I was female, I’d be at the last chance saloon in terms of my fertile years. So my opinion on the subject should not really matter. It’s not a decision I will ever have to make. Thankfully. But I don’t want to live in a country where the laws control women’s bodies. I don’t want to have to force pregnant rape victims, or women who can’t afford another child, or who are carrying foetuses with fatal abnormalities, travel alone to another country to deal with it. And what if they can’t afford the cost of the trip. If a woman doesn’t want to have a baby, then I’ll trust her to make the best choice for herself. And if she decides that she wants to terminate the pregnancy, then she damned well should be allowed to do that here in mythical, mystical Ireland.
And I’ll have a vote on what women can or cannot do with their bodies.
The pro-life crowd was visible on the periphery of the protest. Like the pervert uncle at a family wedding, they always seem to be there, lurking. With their malevolent and catholic agenda. These are the same crowd who engaged in that disgustingly hateful and homophobic campaign against marriage equality last year. They were the same faces that opposed the introduction to divorce. They don’t broadcast their religious affiliations so much any more. The catholic church is such a poisoned chalice in the eyes of the public these days – with the relentless onslaught of the sordid tales of child sexual abuse by the clergy, which was covered up by the hierarchy – that they have gone underground. But they are behind the No campaign. Like a malignant presence, they continues to smear the country with their bigotry and hatred. The Youth Defence van with it’s billboard proclaiming ‘Abortion is violence against mothers and babies’ was circling town with the German schlager song ‘Life is life’ bellowing from the speakers. I suspect that the average age of a Youth Defence member is 56.
The posters of the pro-choice marchers were far more eloquent.
‘Get your rosaries off my ovaries.’
‘Hey hey, mister, mister, keep your laws off my sister’.
‘2-4-6-8 we have got to repeal the 8th’.
The campaign is going to be long. It is going to be vicious, as these campaigns always are. But it will be successful. Today was my first foray into the pro-choice movement. I suspect it will be the first of several over the next few years.