“Why we need to finally legalise abortion in Ireland”

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Sinead Gleeson
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In two days’ time the people of Ireland will vote in a referendum about altering their strict abortion laws. Dublin-based writer Sinéad Gleeson has been campaigning for reform 

I am standing in front of a stranger’s door; a dog is barking in the front room. I take a deep breath and wait for the shape of someone to appear behind the frosted glass. This is my first time canvassing ahead of the referendum being held in Ireland on 25 May. The Irish electorate will vote on whether or not to repeal Article 40.3.3 of our constitution – otherwise known as the eighth amendment. It gives equal right to life to a pregnant mother and her unborn foetus, whether it is a week-old embryo or approaching the 23-week viability mark, making them physically – and legally – umbilical. 

Standing at this door, like most of the ones I visit tonight, the occupant will be voting Yes to changing the law. The only hard No is from a woman who says abortion is murder. Even if the mother’s life is in danger, I ask? “God is good. He’ll decide,” she replies. I thank her for her time.

To be a woman in Ireland right now is to feel afraid. The historical cloud of brutal institutions for unmarried mothers, the Mother and Baby homes and the Magdalene laundries, hovers in living memory. These were institutions that traded in the abjection of women, enforced by the dual patriarchy of church and state. That controlling mindset lingers when it comes to abortion and reproductive health. Our country does not see us as individuals. 

Abortion in Ireland is illegal and punishable with a 14-year jail term. Women have been denied terminations on the grounds of rape, suicidal feelings, fatal foetal abnormality, incest, sepsis and cancer treatment. A small percentage of abortions are carried out, but only if the woman is deemed to be in immediate danger of death. As the referendum draws nearer, women start to share their stories; many are manning stalls or organising fundraisers. Every one is preoccupied and weary. Dublin feels brittle and on edge. The referendum is not far from every waking thought.

“The referendum is not far from every waking thought”

In the face of all this, it is difficult not to feel that Ireland hates its women. That it doesn’t trust, care for, or listen to half the population. That it is more concerned with policing our bodies than allowing us autonomy. This might sound inflammatory, but the eighth amendment has caused women to die – such as 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who died in Galway in 2012 after a septic miscarriage. Savita’s name is on everyone’s lips – how there will be more cases like hers if the law is not changed. A relative admits they’re voting No, and it feels like a huge betrayal. We have a long phone conversation, in which they say they’ve changed their mind. I won’t know if they did. 

A writer friend overhears 20-something men talking on a train. One, full of swagger, says he doesn’t “want to give us that”, insinuating that women are uppity for wanting to control their bodies. But there are kind men too, standing alongside us, recognising what’s at stake.

In 1992, the year I turned 18 and was eligible to vote, the news was dominated by another horrifying story. A 14-year-old girl, known as the X-case girl, pregnant as a result of rape, was suicidal and intended to travel to London with her family for a termination. Because of the 1983 eighth amendment clause, an injunction prevented her from going. It was later appealed, but she miscarried. I thought about that girl a lot. Tried to picture her: long hair or short, what bands she liked, how frightened she must have been. 1992 was the year of my first boyfriend, of my mother worrying that I’d get pregnant because back then she was still anti-choice (she’s voting Yes now). Everyone thought about that X-case girl and what we would – or could do – if it happened to us. 

There is also the C-case, A, B and C v Ireland, Miss D, Ms Y. Turning women into letters ensured privacy but also felt like erasure, making it easier for anti-abortion supporters to not think about the person at the centre of it. The cases are all harrowing. One is particularly The Handmaid’s Tale-esque: an asylum seeker raped in her home country who fled to Ireland. There, she was coerced to stay pregnant until her baby was viable and delivered by caesarean section at 25 weeks. NP, a pregnant mother of young children – clinically dead after a neural trauma – was kept on life support against her family’s wishes due to the presence of a foetal heartbeat. These two women who didn’t, or couldn’t, offer consent were treated as incubators. A Gileadean nightmare from which we can’t seem to wake.

Activists dress as Handmaids during a rally in Dublin

Knocking on doors with Together For Yes, I tell these stories to people who are undecided. Yet all I want to say is a woman should be able to have a termination for whatever reasons she needs one. Two men say they don’t agree with abortion, but preface their answers with, “Well if it’s rape, that’s different…” I gently explain that by sympathising with even one of the many causes of crisis pregnancy, they must vote Yes.

The referendum campaign continues. Groups of all-male politicians stage photo shoots. They hold ‘Vote No’ signs and smile with the benign confidence of those untouched by the issues, utterly assured of the correctness of their stance. Anti-choice proponents are convinced that if the eighth amendment is repealed, women will avail of abortions with the regularity and glee of gals’ lunches. Many No voters are motivated by their Catholic faith, while lacking compassion for the reality of crisis pregnancy. Another strand of those on the No side is the Irish Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. They stand outside Dublin maternity hospitals displaying graphic banners of foetal remains, while women enduring miscarriages have to walk past them.

I drive my young children to school and they ask about the No posters everywhere. About why people are talking about murdering babies. They shouldn’t have to see these images. I explain about the lies on the posters, and about how sad and complicated it is for women. 

Two days after my first canvas, I am sitting in a Dublin hospital waiting for a check-up. In 2003, I was diagnosed with leukaemia. I endured two and a half years of treatment, during which, there was a contraceptive emergency. My consultant recommended a morning-after pill. I asked what would happen if it didn’t work. “We’d have to have a conversation,” he replied. Our interaction was opaque and terrifying. The thought of being pregnant while seriously ill felt overwhelming. But in 2004, the law was unshakeable, and doctors are also subject to a 14-year sentence if they provide or assist in abortion.

I have to believe that the Yes vote will prevail on 25 May. It is too distressing to think about the outcome if it doesn’t. Of the pain it will cause to women to feel our healthcare and safety is not a democratic right. No one who votes No ever has to have an abortion. Any changes in the law will not impinge on their moral outlook. A repeal of the amendment will not affect those who think women incapable of making informed choice. It is needed to protect all women: the couple with the devastating diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality; the teenage girls with so much in front of them; the rape victim; the 40% who have abortions because of contraceptive failure; the three women a day who buy illegal pills; the women who simply do not want to carry a pregnancy to term; potentially, me in 2004.

Ireland and its legislators need to acknowledge the many complex reasons that women need safe, regulated access to abortion in their own country. We must end this restriction on women’s lives, the suffocating lack of control, the shame, the horror of travelling to abort. For us, for our daughters, and their daughters.

Home to vote

Irish citizens living abroad for 18 months or less are entitled to return home and vote on 25 May. These three women are making the trip to repeal the eighth

Niamh Cavanagh, 24, journalist from Tipperary 

“I’m voting so that my family, friends, niece, future daughters and future women of Ireland have control over their own lives. A lot of women have been let down by our government. It is time to start the healing process by allowing them full body autonomy. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.”

Lauren White, 25, studio assistant from Monaghan

“This vote is important to me because of my own personal circumstance. It’s about having a choice in a difficult situation. I’ve had a heart defect since birth and have to take blood thinners which can cause severe physical and mental disabilities to a foetus. I hope the Irish people will vote in favour of choice.”

Amelia Cullen, 24, student from Dublin

“I booked flights when the vote was announced. What struck me was how easy it is for me to hop on a plane versus those without the right to choose who had to make the journey the other way. After the marriage equality referendum, I have faith a Yes vote will succeed.”

Photography: Laurence McMahon

Images: Getty