As Irish citizens prepare to go to the polls on May 25 to vote in the Irish abortion referendum, the world will watch as we decide whether the eighth amendment is to be kept or removed from the constitution. Added in 1983, the bill enshrines the right to life of the unborn as equal to the life of the mother, resulting in an almost absolute ban on abortion. I will be returning to my former primary school to cast my vote, along with my mom, dad, sister, and grandparents. My family are not the kind that often does things together, therefore it’s strange that going to the polling station to vote in the abortion referendum will be one of those occasions.
In a country that has for too long silenced its women, this marks a point when Ireland has the opportunity to catch up with the rest of the world and provide free, safe, and legal healthcare to those who have died pleading for it. Women like Savita Halappanavar, whose needless death shocked the world in 2012 and, as reported by the Guardian, kickstarted the conversation towards a referendum which would help separate church and state. The removal of Catholic ethos from our healthcare system and schools has been a long time coming.
Ninety-six percent of primary schools in Ireland are under Catholic patronage and growing up in a rural area meant a Catholic school was the only option, despite the fact I was not Catholic. Given this lack of choice, I was left in limbo, half taking part in the succession of Catholic rites of passage that my classmates went through. Christening, First Confession, First Communion, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Lent. As a child, I didn’t know any different. I was never taught why things are one way and not another. Nobody talked about anything uncomfortable. But the amalgamation of the Catholic church and the Irish state meant that either way, these traditions were made to be mine too.
As the only one not taking part in communions and confessions in my class, I sat in an empty pew like a spare part waiting for regular class time to resume, watching transfixed as classmates queued up for the narrow confession boxes. I learned prayers and hymns off by heart, and remember being taught how to say a decade of the rosary, muttering incantations I didn't understand. It was strange, but only in hindsight, really, because the way Irish society is subsumed by Catholicism was a norm for generations.
The Catholic Church dominates education in Ireland, a weak state after independence saw the wealthy church take over the provision of health and education. That legacy of church ownership persists today and the unique ethos of these Catholics schools prevents access to sex education that isn't based around religious doctrine. As a secondary school student, I learned about the biological capabilities of the ovaries and the function of the uterus, but did not receive an education around sex, safe sex, consent, or unplanned pregnancy. At 14, I took a seat in the library of my convent school with the rest of my year as we listened to a talk by Pure In Heart, who preached that abstinence was the only way of preventing pregnancy. Talking about this to friends who aren’t from Ireland, saying it aloud, I realise how shocking that is, and just how recent that was. Since its introduction in 1983, the eighth amendment has reinforced the overlap between church and state. This referendum gives Irish people the opportunity to loosen the chokehold the church has on anyone with the ability to get pregnant.
For me, this referendum marks a point where Irish society is dealing with the topics it buried in shame, disgust, and awkwardness for so long. It has been incredible to watch from slightly afar — I emigrated from Ireland in January — the people power that has gone into educating and informing the public, and banishing the harmful and manipulative myths about abortion often perpetuated by the pro-life side. Volunteers nationwide are working for the women who don’t have a voice, the women who can’t afford to travel, the women who traveled, bleeding, alone and afraid.
Repealing the eighth amendment will also change the lives of people with mental illness, a section of society who are already vulnerable and let down by the government due to lack of resources. An unplanned pregnancy can have serious mental health repercussions and under current laws, women are either forced to see that pregnancy through to birth, or else travel for an abortion. Pregnancy can exacerbate an already difficult situation and can close off treatment options. For me, seeing other mentally ill women speak about their experiences with the eighth has been incredibly emotional and underlines that for me, an Ireland under the eighth amendment is not an Ireland I want to ever be pregnant in.
Tied into the effects of an unwanted pregnancy upon a woman's mental health are the financial issues that arise. A yes vote and the legalisation of safe abortion healthcare would be one less way in which the state targets its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
I want to be able to go back to a country where the healthcare system is not actively working against poor women and mentally ill women...
Aside from the immeasurable emotional trauma, for the vast majority of women, the eighth amendment hits hardest those without financial resources to travel, those forced to carry through with a pregnancy they may neither want nor be able to support. As reported by the independent healthcare organisation Marie Stopes, the cost of travelling to the UK for an abortion can run into hundreds of pounds before taking into account accommodation, transport, and food.
A yes vote means that instead of bleeding in an airport in Liverpool, women can receive compassionate care at home. I want to be able to go back to a country where the healthcare system is not actively working against poor women and mentally ill women, where being faced with an unplanned pregnancy does not mean being faced with choices no woman should ever have to make. In Ireland, a woman who tries to get an abortion after being raped could face a jail time equal to or longer than the person who raped her.
Twitter has been a difficult place for those talking about the abortion referendum, as it has left many vulnerable to trolling and abuse. But it has also been an essential way of raising awareness. In April 2018, over just a few days, #TogetherForYes raised €580,000, up from a goal of €15,000, to fund posters. As part of their effort, people shared their personal stories with a hope to showing the reality of life with the current laws.
Recently, #WhoNeedsYourYes has become a testament to the strength and courage of the thousands upon thousands involved in fighting for a better Ireland. The #RepealThe8th tag has also come to feel like one of the most recognisable in a long time.
The campaign has made global headlines multiple times, with reports in the Wall Street Journal, NBC, New York Times, and Washington Post. Celebrities like U2, Courteney Cox, Kate Nash, Hozier, and Cillian Murphy have spoken to show real-life influence where it matters.
From my perspective, on May 25, Irish citizens will decide whether they stand with women or against women. They will decide whether the long fight for bodily autonomy ends and the provision of healthcare at home starts. What was once unspoken is now unavoidable. What was a brave few is now a national movement, and I feel incredibly proud that three generations of my family can be a part of that when we vote yes. Repeal the 8th.