Can a new generation topple Ireland’s 8th amendment?
This Friday, 25 May, Ireland will vote in a referendum to remove the 8th amendment of the constitution. The amendment was introduced in 1983 with a referendum which won the support of 67 per cent of the population. It stated:
‘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.’
The amendment was not introduced to criminalize abortion – this was already unequivocally the case in Ireland before the ‘83 vote. Rather, the campaign for an anti-abortion amendment was fought as a symbolic battle to gain ground against what was seen as ‘creeping secularism’ in Ireland; the perceived encroachment of European ‘human rights’ legislation into Ireland, the legalization of contraception and the opening up of debates about the role of the Catholic Church in the state.
Beyond issues of reproductive justice, the obvious legal flaws in the amendment were well flagged. The word ’nborn’ has no clear legal definition, or that the amendment contains no mechanism for adjudicating in situations where the rights of mother and ‘unborn’ came into conflict. The day of the referendum in 1983, Mary Robinson, the 7th president of Ireland, was already arguing that ‘Even the concept of the word “unborn” is not known to lawyers,’ and that it was so vague that certain types of contraceptives might even be rendered illegal by the vote.
The impact of the 8th
And so, the victory of the amendment in 1983 was therefore largely symbolic. No legislation was required, since abortion was already illegal. But, by contrast, in the decades that followed, the impacts of the 8th have been startlingly and tragically concrete.
In 1992, the first high profile case was brought before the courts in relation to the 8th amendment – known as the ‘x’ case. A 14-year-old-girl, a victim of rape, suicidal, and under the care of the state, asked for support to travel to the UK for an abortion. The country’s Attorney General sought a court injunction to stop this, citing the state’s duty to ‘vindicate’ the right to life of the girl’s unborn foetus, under the 8th amendment.
The outcome of the case was a Supreme Court ruling that the government should legislate to explicitly acknowledge the right of a woman to access an abortion if she was suicidal, and to delineate precisely when, and how, a woman whose life was endangered through pregnancy, could access a termination. But 20 years later, in 2012, legislation had still not been enacted. It was not until the tragic death, on 28th October 2012, of Savita Halappanavar, that legislation regulating life-saving abortions was introduced.
Savita died of sepsis having been refused a potentially life-saving abortion despite her and her husband’s repeated requests. Her life had not been judged to be ‘sufficiently’ endangered as to merit an abortion, under the 8th amendment’s provisions.
The tragic roots of a mobilized generation
Savita’s death was followed in quick succession by a series of other tragedies. In 2014, a young migrant woman who had become pregnant as a result of rape before arriving in the state, was unable to travel to the UK to access abortion because she didn’t hold a visa. She was suicidal, and an early delivery of her pregnancy was eventually performed because it had progressed beyond the point of viability. Later in the same year, a young woman who was declared irrecoverably brain dead was placed on life support against her family’s wishes, because her unborn child remained alive – despite the miniscule chances of the child being born alive.
It is not an oversimplification to say that these cases mobilized a generation. At 34-years-of-age, I am at the older end of the age spectrum of the campaigners most active in the current referendum campaign. In my home constituency, Dublin Central, upwards of 70 per cent of our canvassers on a given night are women in the 20s and early 30s – a 180 degree turn from the general demographic of political campaigning.
These young women were themselves teenagers when Savita died. Their entire adult lives have been shaped by this series of tragedies and by the legacy of 35 years of inaction by successive Irish governments which created those tragedies. A 24-year-old whose first six years of adulthood has been shaped by learning the utter contempt her state holds women in, is a powerful individual. She wakes at 6am to hand out leaflets at her local train station, leads a team of canvassers through an estate, proudly displays pro-choice badges as badges of honour, and has an in-depth knowledge of the how and why of abortion not just in Ireland, but globally. She certainly bears little resemblance to the lazy stereotype of the disengaged millennial, more concerned with their cappuccino than the wellbeing of others.
Abortion is already an Irish reality
Perhaps the most powerful message these women, and all pro-choice campaigners, have been spreading through the campaign is that Friday’s referendum is not a referendum for or against abortion – because abortion is already very much an ingrained part of Irish reality. Twelve Irish women every day have an abortion – nine of those by travelling to the UK, and a growing number by purchasing abortion pills online, importing them discreetly and illegally into the country.
There is no reason to believe that the number of abortions will rise because it is legalized. In Switzerland and Portugal, both of whom in the last decade introduced legislation similar to what is proposed for Ireland, the rate of abortions taking place each year actually decreased following liberalization.
Abortion is accessible to most women in Ireland – if you have the money, if you have somebody to look after your kids, if your partner isn’t abusive to the point where you don’t have the ability to spend 24 hours away from him, if you have the requisite visa papers to leave and re-enter Ireland. This inequality of access to abortion is one of Ireland’s great hypocrisies.
If the 8th amendment was an attempt by Catholic fundamentalists to force women to continue to be pregnant when they did not want to, then they have succeeded in controlling only those women who are most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. The repeal of the 8th amendment is critical to building a society where all women have equal access to decision-making in relation to reproduction.
Church and state: A step in the struggle, not the end point or the beginning
In February 1984, less than six months after the passage of the 8th amendment to the constitution, a teenage girl named Ann Lovett, died while giving birth alone, in a grotto to St. Mary, in the Irish midlands. Nobody, it appeared, knew she was pregnant. Her death resounded as a wakeup call that Ireland’s stiff Catholic morals were taking their toll on the wellbeing of its women.
It wasn’t until 12 years later that the last Magdalene Laundry – the church-owned institutions where ‘fallen women’ were sent as punishment for being pregnant outside of marriage – was closed. And it has taken a further 22 years to reach a point where Irish people may choose to introduce abortion legislation in line with almost every other country in Europe.
Ireland cannot be categorized as a religious country today. And yet the legacy of the church’s control in society will continue beyond the referendum. So long as over 90 per cent of primary schools and over 50 per cent of state secondary schools remain in church ownership, it is unlikely that young people will have the type of secular sex education that they deserve. And so long as our public hospitals remain owned or governed by religious orders, it will remain a struggle to ensure a full range of reproductive healthcare services are provided.
There is a cautious optimism amongst pro-choice campaigners that Friday’s vote will prove a historic victory for those who fight for a secular society. But it will be viewed not as the pinnacle of our achievements in that fight, but simply as the foundation for a confident, vibrant and long overdue campaign for a proper, secular republic.
Cllr. Éilis Ryan is an elected city councillor for the Workers' Party of Ireland, on Dublin City Council. She is active in Dublin Central's Together for Yes campaign. Twitter @eilistweets
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