Friday citizens in the south will have an opportunity to remove the eighth amendment. That is citizens will, if they wish to, remove this amendment from the Irish constitution or leave it in. This amendment was originally proposed by Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Charlie Haughey in 1982. The referendum on this was subsequently held under a Fine Gael/Labour coalition government in September 1983.
The Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 1982 took the decision to oppose this amendment. This was four years before Sinn Féin ended our abstentionist policy to the Oireachtas. So, the Ard Fheis decided not to campaign against the amendment, though individual party members, especially women activists, did. In the decades since then Sinn Féin has constantly revised party policy on the role and rights of women in Irish society.
35 years after the 1983 referendum the people of the south now have the opportunity to vote again on this issue and to right a wrong done at that time. The question we are being asked to decide on is whether a woman has the right to a public health service that allows her and her doctor to take decisions on her health if she has a crisis pregnancy. Or are women inferior, are they suspect, are they not to be trusted, are they to be criminalised, and should there be a constitutional bar that puts women’s lives at risk?
Like everyone else I have been on a learning curve on this issue. I grew up in the fifties and sixties and I am from a family of 13. I have 5 sisters. My mother had 13 pregnancies. 10 of us survived. Three little brothers died either directly after they were born or were still-born. It was a household of its time. I was reared in a largely Catholic culture with all the strengths and shortcomings of that experience. Taught by the Christian Brothers I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. So I have a good sense of the matriarchal nature of Irish society, as opposed to the patriarchal nature of the state. The two states on this island are very patriarchal and very conservative.
In those days – if he had a job - the man brought home the wages and the mother usually did all of the rest – managing the household finances, cooking, cleaning, running the household, looking after the children, everything you could conceivably think of. Women were the home managers. The pawn shop was an essential part of this. We were poor. But so was everyone we knew. We were also homeless, living with my father’s mother or in a slum tenement. For much of those years we relied in my Granny’s on an outside toilet. There was a single water tap in the yard. Because of our family’s politics we had a slightly different attitude to the Catholic Church, on account of the hierarchy’s shameful attitude to the national question, and the way uncles of mine had been excommunicated.
As I became an adult I was also influenced by people like Fr. Des Wilson, who was very radical and progressive. My views were also influenced by the discriminatory manner in which women were and still are treated by the state, by the Catholic Church, by sections of the media, in business, and so on. The older I get the more I resent the undemocratic nature of the Catholic Church and its deeply unacceptable attitude to women.
I have come round to a position that it doesn’t really matter what position I, as an individual may have on abortion. This referendum isn’t about whether you are pro-abortion or anti-abortion. What you must be is pro-woman. And you have to set aside whatever position you may have yourself because we need to trust women to make the best decisions for themselves and their families and we need to enable health professionals to do their jobs.
I have listened to the testimony of women who had fatal foetal abnormalities, to the stories of women and their partners who had to go to England for an abortion, and to our own Ard Fheis discussing this issue for almost 30 years.
I have many women in my life. Colette, our granddaughters. Their mother. My sisters, sisters-in-law, nieces, grand nieces, many women friends and comrades.
Any of them – though I hope it never happens –might find themselves in a crisis pregnancy. The only way to help women who are seeking a termination because they are pregnant as a result of rape, or who have received a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, is to vote YES on Friday.
I also have this abiding notion that if men could get pregnant this would not be an issue.
When I learned about symphysiotomy - when I learned about the Magdalene’s – when I heard about the horror of the Mother-and-Baby-Homes, about the Tuam babies, and how women were shamefully and disgracefully treated, then I have become more and more convinced that this is an issue of equality and an issue of rights. Whatever decision a woman takes that it is for her to take and the doctor and medical staff must be protected.
This is an issue for everyone. It is unthinkable that if the No vote wins that women could be saddled with the status quo for the next 30 years or so.
And what is the status quo? It is legal for a woman to go and have an abortion elsewhere but it’s not legal to have one in the 26 counties. So we have opted out. We export this issue. An English solution for an Irish problem. It means if you have the money, or can find the money, to travel to what is a strange place, generally on your own, then you can have an abortion. That’s not right. If a woman has the right to travel to terminate a crisis pregnancy, she should have the same right in her own place
I know friends who have carried full term in the knowledge that the child would not live and that’s their right. And I know others who have had terminations because they couldn’t face the trauma. I think in both cases we have to respect the decision of those affected.
It’s also ridiculous and dangerous and illegal for a woman to take pills bought on the internet with no medical supervision. She is risking her health and a fourteen-year prison sentence. Society is forcing her into a very lonely, desperate place. This is not acceptable. I recently heard an interview given by a woman who was in a crisis pregnancy. She lived in a one-bedroom flat with her mother, and didn’t want her mother to know she was pregnant. She took a pill on her way home on the bus and became very ill. No one should be put in that position.