Irish women won’t go back into the shadows

May 24, 2018

Becca Bor, a pro-choice campaigner and member of People Before Profit in Derry, has been active in the movement to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. She is on the editorial board of the new Rebel website in Ireland. Here, she gives the background to this Friday’s referendum on repealing the constitutional amendment that makes abortion illegal.

IRISH CITIZENS will again head to the polls on May 25 to vote on the kind of country they want to live in.

Three years ago, people in Ireland voted in a referendum for marriage equality, shaking the historically Catholic Church-dominated society to the core.

On Friday, Ireland will vote on abortion rights in a referendum on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

By making the life of the unborn fetus equal under the law to the life of the woman carrying it, the Eighth Amendment makes Irish abortion policy the most restrictive in Europe.

The only grounds for abortion is if the life of the mother is in danger — not health, but literally life. The penalty for abortion is 14 years in prison — for both the woman who has had the abortion and the provider.

"Yes" supporters demonstrate for abortion rights in Dublin
"Yes" supporters demonstrate for abortion rights in Dublin (People Before Profit Dublin 15 | Facebook)

The Eighth Amendment was incorporated into the constitution following a referendum in 1983 — when Ireland was a very different country from today. Church domination has been weakened by scandal after scandal, and a new generation is fighting for a new Ireland.

The victory of the marriage equality campaign immediately led to calls for this referendum, and like three years ago, the Repeal campaign has been massive, colorful, vibrant, youthful and confident.

Women are finding their voice and conviction through this long-battled fight for reproductive rights. Some 50,000 pro-choice protesters filled the streets in a protest last year, giving expression to the growing confidence of the women’s equality struggle.

Activists launched the campaign Together for Yes across the country and formed canvassing teams in every county. Groups across Ireland have formed — some as Facebook pages and others as activist groups articulating why abortion rights are important for them.

These include Doctors for Choice, Artists for Choice, Catholics for Choice, People with Disabilities for Choice, Midwives for Choice, Mothers for Choice, Lads for Choice, Parents for Choice in Pregnancy and Childbirth, and so many more.

WHILE ABORTION isn’t often talked about in most societies, in Ireland, the word is hardly uttered aloud — even by women who have had an abortion.

The shame, stigma and secrecy that shroud thousands of women is being broken down through the Repeal campaign. An entire society is discussing abortion, choice and women’s health care.

Those of us canvassing to repeal the reactionary Eighth Amendment go daily to people’s homes and ask them to talk to us about a woman’s right to choose. My experience at this has been far better than I anticipated.

While I live in the North, I am part of a group of pro-choice activists who go to County Donegal to join canvassers there to knock on doors. Every night, there are two or three people that we might convince from a being a “Maybe” into a “Yes,” or a “No” into a “Maybe.”

There’s so much scaremongering and misinformation, that for this referendum to pass and repeal to take place, women have had to tell their own stories — because regardless of the law, thousands of Irish women have had abortions.

A Facebook page called “In her shoes — Women of the Eighth” was started as women began to write their own stories. Story after story came in.

There are stories of rape and abuse, stories of unwanted teen pregnancies or wanted pregnancies where something went horribly wrong, such as a fatal fetal abnormality or horrendous complications.

There are stories of pregnancies and other health issues where women were denied health care for fear of harming the fetus, such as cancer treatment, brain bleeds, epilepsy fits and acute diabetes.

There are stories of women having no control over their pregnancies, being denied a cesarean or being forced to have one. Stories of women being alone, women confiding in their parents, stories of shame.

Stories of mothers. Stories of children. Stories of the trip to England, feeling like everyone was looking at them on the plane. Stories of the taxi drivers knowing exactly where they were going when they heard the accent and saw a woman by herself with no luggage.

Stories of being alone in hotel rooms. Stories of bleeding on flights. Vomiting on ferries. Stories of wanting to be home.

Stories of men who held their partner’s hands as they left hospitals in England, having had to cremate their wanted babies and head back onto the ferry or the plane back to Ireland without the casket.

Stories of women being shamed by anti-choice protesters outside clinics, or anti-choice doctors, counselors, friends and family.

Stories of women who up until posting their story on this Facebook page had never told a soul of their secret.

AS OF the latest polls, the vote is predicted to be very close. Though “Yes” is favored to win out, the “No” campaign has been gaining ground by using all-out scare tactics, aggressive canvassing, the pulpit and blatant lies in their campaign. There remain many undecided voters who may sway the outcome one way or another.

The “No” campaign has been absolutely vile, particularly in the last few weeks. They have flown in their anti-choice minions from across the globe — though particularly from the U.S. — to canvass and hold up massive posters of doctored fetuses.

Not far from where I live, “No” campaigners erected thousands of white crosses on the roadside, spanning 30 miles and depicting the “aborted babies” in Ireland.

They are no different than the anti-choice fanatics who harass women at clinics or show up with enormous fetus placards claiming to protect life (while they never fight for affordable health care, child care or housing) that many Socialist Worker readers will be familiar with in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the mainstream Together for Yes campaign positioned itself too defensively and has highlighted the “hard cases,” such as abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormalities.

This has confused the referendum, because the “No” side has been claiming that repealing the Eighth will mean abortion on demand for everyone. If the “Yes” campaign drew the battle lines at choice, and at trusting women with their bodies, then there would be no space for discussions about when life begins or fetal rights.

In fact, an Irish Times poll showed that when asked the question “Are you in favor of repealing the Eighth Amendment?” 47 percent of people said “Yes,” but when asked the question “Are you in favor of giving the women the right to make their own choice?” 62 percent of people said “Yes.”

The message of choice is getting lost by the shouting of the “No” campaign.

While we are nervous about the result, this referendum has shown that women are not alone. It feels like a new dawn is coming for women’s rights in Ireland.

Win or lose on May 25, these women will never go back into the shadows.

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