The Weight of the Eighth
I studied law in all its forms for three years of my life. I spent six months of those years one of those years entrenched in the grim world of family related legal issues. Our lecturer would begin every class with the reminder that “There’s only one thing nastier than criminal law – and you’re in it.”
It was during this half year that I rigorously dissected Article 40.3.3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, or as it’s more commonly known, the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution. I wrote legal paper after legal paper on issues such as domestic violence and sexual consent, during which I repeatedly referenced the Eighth. I vividly recall my final year family law exam, sitting in the yawning chasm of our university sports hall furiously writing direct constitutional quotations until my wrist went numb. “The State 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.” I was, I believed, pro-choice, but back then, I would be lying if I said that these words meant much to me. Back then, they were simply a minute fraction of the volumes of legal doctrine I was required to learn in order to graduate; the words of the Eighth were just words like all the rest. I am ashamed to admit that until I graduated from college and became familiar with the penetrating malice deriving from this legal provision, I never truly equated the consequences of those phrases with real people, real life women with real life emotions, real life worries, real hopes, real dreams and real crises. When Romania's infamous dictator Nicolae Ceausescu imposed one of the most stringent prohibitions on abortion in modern history upon his country, he declared that "The foetus is the property of the entire society." Ceausescu is long dead, assassinated in a violent revolution of his own people, and his tortuous legislation long since thrown out, but in Ireland in 2018, his statement still echoes true.
Abortion was rarely spoken about when I was growing up. My memory is that it was regarded as a dirty word, a dirty subject that was strictly taboo before we knew what 'taboo' meant. At school, the official line was deafening silence. In fact, the official line stopped short of contraception itself – no instruction, guidance or discussion would be entertained on the subject because it “stood contrary to the ethos of both school and state.” Reproductive education without any education on reproduction. Abortion. We grew up as children blissfully ignorant of the subject and grew into young adults frightened of the very word itself.
“Abortion passengers: turn back now! We will reimburse the cost of your flight.” These are the words which a midlands ‘pro-life’ organisation were lobbying to festoon the walls of Dublin airport with in June 2017. I found the proposed image online one evening while I was working on a women's rights feature; later that night, I dreamt that I walked alone down a maze of corridors in the airport. The sign speckled the walls from top to bottom, leading down the gangway right up to the embarkation point between solid ground and airplane carpet. In my dream, I shut my eyes tightly, tears silently building, pressing weightily against the lower rims, before I forced them open in an anguished act of defiance and jolted myself awake to the realisation that it had been just a nightmare. Still, I thought, how dare these organisations, these people who know nothing about the agonising choice that Irish women are faced with every single day, trivialise the most difficult decision of these women's lives down to the paltry price of a 40 minute budget airline ticket?
Without speculating on the opinion of anti-choice voters, I firmly believe that those who are in vehement favour of retaining the 8th cannot possibly understand the far reaching implications of this legal provision. Maybe I just want to believe that they are misguided, misinformed so that I can retain some bit of hope in humanity. Abortion does not begin and end with a medical procedure - the damage that is wrought by the absence of free, safe, legal access to reproductive healthcare for women in Ireland is, in my opinion, equalled only by the lack of meaningful psychological support for these women in its aftermath. Catholic guilt is alive and well on our green shores, and after hundreds of years of church/state entanglement it is no wonder that Irish women often report feelings of searing confusion, penetrating guilt, abandonment, shame and isolation after the journey abroad. As we stand today, there is just the offer of clandestine over-the-phone counselling from foreign clinics, because this is Ireland, our beautiful Ireland, complete with its unfair, unjust reproductive laws. Yes, there are pro bono counselling sessions offered by the Well Woman Centre in Dublin, but these resources are stretched to breaking point and scheduled only in standard working hours; a girl in need might go four months before an available appointment, and what then for the women who cannot afford to take a days leave, for the women who have not told a single soul about the choice that they made or for the woman who is desperately trying to come to terms with the fact that her country refused her the dignity of ending her unviable pregnancy?
For me, what anti-choice commentators fail to comprehend is that you can be morally opposed to abortion as an individual while still respecting the free choice of others, whatever their beliefs may be. Sensationalist headlines in the Irish media scare monger that if we vote to repeal, abortion will cascade over the nation like a relentless tsunami, and that we will become 'just like the UK or France'. Open your eyes - the reality is that repeal or no repeal, abortions are happening every single day and they will continue to happen. Just not at home. The only change that will derive from a Yes vote is that no more will our women be forced to writhe in pain on airport benches or to bleed out in airplane toilets. No more will they suffer the degradation and indignity of couriering the foetus of their much wanted child home in a vacuum sealed box. No more will they hide their tears and anguish from their family, friends and colleagues. No more will they keep up the facade of normalcy on the outside while they are falling apart within.
I have the most solemn respect for any woman who finds herself faced with a crisis pregnancy and makes the decision to continue, despite the adversity of her circumstance. These women are strength, they are unadulterated bravery and I will always have the utmost admiration for each and every one of them. Equally, to the women who make a different choice, a choice that must be their right, I extend the same respect, love and solidarity. My most sincere hope is that the next generation of Irish women will not be tortured by the prohibition of that choice.
This is Ireland, our Ireland, our home.
This is the land that taught me tolerance, the land that gave me endless opportunities, a magical childhood and the greatest friends imaginable; but this land is also the land that continues to turn its back on women when they need it the most. Instead of taking the women of Ireland, 12 women every day, into an enveloping embrace, the laws foisted on us as a result of the bastard relationship between church and state dictate that these women are not Ireland’s problem. They are unsavoury, nasty individuals, only fit for export. Not here, not on our doorstep. Shame. I still wonder how different things might have been if Ireland, our Ireland, had sooner allowed open and frank discussion on an issue so prevalent, it affects 4,284 women every year.
Abortion will always be a divisive issue in Ireland because of our historic legacy of Catholic patriarchy. It will continue to polarise opinion both inter-generationally and among peers, a fact that has become increasingly evident to me in the final days of the referendum campaign. My last words before May 25th to those who remain undecided would be to block out the hate speech from every angle, whatever side it is coming from, ignore the sensationalised dramatics being played out on RTÉ and to think about the fundamental principle of autonomous choice. On the Yes side, pro-choice does not equate to being pro-abortion, it merely means to support the right to individual bodily integrity. On the No side, pro-life simply means to stand against choice itself.
The Nigerian poet Ben Okri once remarked that "Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger." If you strip back the stigma and venom surrounding Ireland’s abortion debate, you will find thousands of women, thousands of individuals with thousands of unique stories and hardships, thousands of explanations and thousands of reasons for the choice that they made. These are the stories that matter in the last hours before voting day. These stories are what makes all of this horrible rhetoric human. These stories, of the exiled and the shamed, are the only messages we should be giving consideration to before the people of this country can make an informed decision on the position of the Eighth amendment, because they will open the eyes of the undecided to the deeply humbling strength of womankind and to the flagrant disparity in fundamental human rights that exists between the sexes in this land that we call home.
The time has come. The time is now. Repeal the Eighth.