25 MAY 2018

Today, Friday 25th May 2018, citizens of Ireland are voting on whether to Repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution. The 8th Amendment was made in 1983, although abortion has always been illegal in Ireland. It states that an unborn child has the same right to life as the mother. Not only is procuring or performing an abortion a criminal act, but the 8th Amendment also works to restrict abortion in cases where there is a risk to life of the pregnant woman, which has resulted in the deaths of a number of pregnant women in Ireland, many gaining global attention in recent years.

The referendum comes almost exactly three years after a referendum to introduce the 34th Amendment, which would recognise marriage between two people of the same sex, was voted for in favour by the Irish population. The most recent polls suggest the pro-choice ‘Repeal the 8th’ campaign may be edging ahead, however 1 in 5 Irish voters are still reporting that they are unsure which way they will vote. Campaigning to repeal the 8th has been ongoing across Ireland, in fringe groups and political parties since the change was implemented in 1983, however the cause gained greater momentum and worldwide attention after the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old dentist who died of septicaemia after she miscarried at 17 weeks. The miscarriage took over a week to unfold and Savita was refused an abortion during this time, leading to the infection which killed her. Mr Halappanavar said after his wife Savita’s death, that when she arrived at the hospital and asked to be induced, she was told she couldn’t because “Ireland is a Catholic country” and that they “can’t abort when the foetus is live.” The baby’s heart stopped on the Wednesday, and Savita passed away on Sunday the 28th October 2012. After Savita’s death protests unfolded across Ireland and solidarity protests took place internationally, with social media playing a huge part in telling the story of Savita’s death to a global audience. Other cases have been documented of women suffering with cancer who fall pregnant prior to diagnosis or during the treatment, being forced to forego their chemotherapy as it poses a risk to the foetus, resulting in the death of both mother and baby.

The European Court of Human Rights found in 2010 that “Ireland had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to provide an accessible and effective procedure by which a woman can have established whether she qualifies for a legal abortion under Irish law” in a landmark case known as A,B,C v Ireland. However despite this ruling, nothing has changed in Ireland and women as well as the health professionals advising them still risk prosecution for procuring or administrating an abortion.

Ireland is a country entrenched in cultural and generational trauma, from the Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1849, which decreased the country’s population by 25% to a War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. In recent decades, the state has been coming to terms with a legacy of abuse at the hands of Catholic institutions which were ran by the state. This has brought reports of sexual abuse in orphanages and clergies to light, along with the Magdalene Asylums - or ‘laundries’ - in which women who fell pregnant out of wedlock, or who were sent away for ‘disgracing’ their family, were forced to work under the watch of nuns and priests who often subjected them to abhorrent human rights abuses and sexual violence. Children were also forcefully separated from their mothers and adopted without consent.

Ireland is a country in which women’s autonomy over their bodies have always been institutionalised, previously enforced by the state through the Magdalene Asylums and restrictive access to contraception (all forms of contraception were illegal in the Republic of Ireland until 1980) and now, by criminalising abortion. The inter-generational narrative of this campaign is reflected in the experiences of abuse, disgrace and isolation at the hands of the state; of women finally coming forward to tell stories of these experiences.

Could it be that the referendum is coming about at a time of increased awareness of women’s rights issues in general? The Fawcett Society has documented the changing landscape of public conversation around women’s rights and sexual violence with the #metoo and #timesup campaign, and in Ireland there were widespread protests which brought Dublin’s main street to a standstill as a result of the #IBelieveHer campaign, which started after professional rugby players were acquitted of the rape of a woman in a high-profile trial in Northern Ireland.

One thing we can be sure of is regardless of the outcome of today’s result, the Repeal the 8th campaign, those before and if needed, after it, will be remembered as a testimony to the power of women, to their ability to keep telling their stories and to never be silenced, regardless of the consequences. It’s the stories of women, passed down from generation to generation, from those who lost their babies, sisters and mothers to the Magdalene asylums, to those forced to conceive in the absence of contraception and those who have lost their lives as a result of the criminality of abortion that have paved the way for this referendum and hopefully, it’s their experiences which will ensure that no more women suffer the same fate at the hands of the state.


Gemma McSherry, journalistGemma is a freelance journalist based between Leeds and Belfast. She works as a features writer for Belfast based arts and culture publication CultureHUB Magazine.