The 8th Across the Sea: Irish Women in Britain on the Abortion Referendum

Tomorrow voters in the Irish Republic go to the polls, on the question of whether the Eighth Amendment to the country’s constitution (which guarantees the unborn the right to life, thus outlawing abortion in the country) should be repealed. The question has of course been debated across Ireland for long before Taoiseach Leo Varadkar promised the referendum shortly after he took office last June. The debate is also raging among Irish women based in Britain. What do they think of it all?

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Julie Ann Lough is a scientist currently working in TV and Radio. Originally from Dublin, she came to the UK thirteen years ago, and currently works in Glasgow.

Julie Ann Lough

* What are your thoughts about the upcoming referendum?

To me, it is long overdue. For too long we in Ireland have been letting down pregnant women who find themselves in difficult situations. We have had this bizarre “Irish Solution to an Irish Problem” where we pretend we don’t have abortion in Ireland, but we do – we just outsource it legally. Since 1992 and the 13th and 14th amendments, it is perfectly acceptable to send your troubled women abroad as healthcare refugees, but not acceptable to treat them at home. It is such a strange hypocrisy, which I often think sums up Ireland. I love my home country, but I would not want to be a pregnant woman there.

This referendum is about so much more than abortion. The 8th amendment has meant women cannot be helped when their health is at severe risk from a pregnancy, and even when a pregnancy is life-threatening doctors admit they have to play medical roulette and wait till she is very ill before they feel they can legally intervene. The 8th amendment has meant that women have had forced C-sections or have been threatened with arrest if they don’t agree to inductions. Under the Health Service consent policy a pregnant women loses the right to consent or refuse to medical intervention and tests, and the 8th is used to justify this stance. The legislation views women as vessels, and that must end. The 8th has even meant that medical teams and families have had to go to court to ensure they can switch off life support: in the case of a woman who was brain dead, her body had started decomposing, but because she was pregnant medics were unsure if they could legally switch off her life support.

I am really anxious about the upcoming referendum – like, really anxious. While the polls are positive there are a lot of fake statements going around from the NO side, which could really confuse some voters. To me, this referendum is about whether or not the Irish public trust Irish Women. For me, a No vote says that my country continues to view me as a second-class citizen and that I am somehow to be “protected” from making my own decisions.

I have found the last few months very hard. As someone who is watching from a distance I have felt helpless as I have watched falsehoods be spread, women who have made the difficult decision to travel be insulted, and even the No side suggest that women who have had terminations for medical reasons are evil or didn’t really care about a much-wanted child.

While I may have lost my vote, I have not lost my voice, and so I have proudly donated to the Together for Yes campaign, used social media to spread the word, and gone home to assist the campaign for a weekend.

* What do your family and friends think about the whole thing?

Almost all of my friends are Pro-Choice. For some, they have been affected by the 8th. They have had inevitable miscarriages prolonged due to a fetal heart rate. Should she be left to have the inevitable prolonged? Or, like one friend, they nearly died in childbirth and know that there is a strong possibility another pregnancy could be fatal or have long-term consequences – should she no longer be intimate with her husband, just to be extra sure?

Most of my friends know that life is not perfect, and that a pregnancy is not always a perfectly happy experience – they have read up about the 8th and see how it can have a serious impact on a women’s health during a pregnancy.

There are some friends I know who are anti-choice. Some are campaigning; others seem to think repealing the 8th will “open the floodgates” – the same thing was said before the divorce referendum! Like this fear that once something is legal we will all do it whether we want to or not! Most of my anti-choice friends are deeply religious people, and that is where their stance comes from. I have tried to engage with these people: I have tried to explain that the 8th is not just about abortion – but sadly sometimes people are very entrenched in their opinions.

You will notice that I use the term “anti-choice.” Everyone is pro-life – no one wants to see anyone have an abortion, and the anti-choice stance has lead to dead women in Ireland, so I really don’t think they can truly call themselves “pro-life”.

As for my family, that is complex. My father phoned me when he heard I was coming home to campaign, telling me I would embarrass him if I campaigned in the parish (I know, right….always about the Church!). I decided to use this as an opportunity to discuss the issues with him – this did not go well. My father is a former seminarian, and so much of his belief on abortion is from the Church. When pressed on why he would be embarrassed if I campaigned for a Yes vote, he replied with the standard line that I have heard rolled out: ‘Well, we don’t trust the politicians!‘ (this is a strong “No” message – if we remove protections of the unborn from the constitution, then the politicians will make abortion available forever, till birth and for any reason whatsoever). Because I think it is important to engage in people with opposing opinions, I asked him, ‘As a father of two daughters can you not trust women?‘ and then proceeded to explain that the 8th is not just about abortion. Alas, to no avail. When pressed on would he rather that I was left disabled by a pregnancy than that I have access to an abortion, he refused to answer. That question was based on a real-life situation where I was ill a number of years ago, and if I got pregnant during my treatment all treatment would be stopped, which could have lead to a long-term disability.

As a woman, I found that deeply upsetting that my father would prefer I was left disabled than have an ability to gain access to a termination. It felt devaluing as a women and sadly, made me feel that once I am pregnant I am just a vessel to some. We’ve not spoken since.

* What do you feel personally about abortion?

I am vehemently Pro-Choice – always have been. As a teenager I spoke out about the stupidity of the 8th. I was appalled that in 1992 the Attorney-General tried to stop a girl who was not much older than me, travelling for a termination following a rape. This became known as the X Case, and led to the change in the law to allow travel and information. I cried for days after Savita Halappanavar died.
She was only a few months older than me: she could have been me or any of my friends. I was deeply affected by her death, and it made me want to do more. Shortly afterwards, I started donating monthly to the Abortion Support Network, a charity that pays travel grants, clinic costs and offers support to women who need to travel for a termination. I felt that no woman should be denied care because of financial resources. One day that charity won’t need to exist – but I am proud of the fact I support it.

My feelings on abortion are, simply, I would love to live in an abortion-free world. In this world every pregnancy would be planned, every pregnancy would be healthy, no woman would get seriously sick because of or during a pregnancy, or be told that she has a seriously ill baby who won’t live much past birth. Sadly, we don’t live in this world – all of these things and more happen, and women need to be able to have the option to make the choices that are best for them and their family. Would I have an abortion myself? I don’t know, I have never been pregnant (thank God!), but I do know that I can’t pass judgement on any woman who does – I have not been in her shoes or faced her decision.

* Which way do you think the vote’s going to go?

Aaaah! I don’t know….I am so nervous about it! When I was campaigning most people were very positive, but it’s so hard to know. I would like to think Ireland has grown up a lot since 1983, that they have realized the cruelty of the 8th. But there could be lots of people swayed by some of the misleading information. I won’t be certain until it is finally called on the 26th in Dublin Castle. I mean, I never saw BREXIT coming!!

* Has the issue touched you in any way? (ie, Do you know anyone who has had to make the journey to Britain, or who wanted to make the journey but couldn’t, or who changed their mind about it?)

As I said above, once I was very ill, it was when I had moved back to Ireland for a few months, and the doctors were deciding what medication to put me on. One option was considered, and a consultant looked me straight in the eye and said ‘You’re in Ireland now, you cannot get pregnant on this medication. If you do we will have to stop it, and you may never get better.‘ It brought home the reality of the situation for me as to how you are really in trouble if you have a problem – your health is seen as less important than the contents of your womb. Since 2013 I supported the Abortion Support Network, and receive monthly emails from the girls, women and families our donations have helped. It makes me so angry that they cannot get help in Ireland, but so I am so proud of the amazing work Mara and the gang do at ASN in supporting people during a difficult time – that is humanity and compassion, not people who oppose a woman’s right to choose. I see what the 8th means to my pregnant friends in Ireland: they know it is a shadow that hangs over their care, and they worry whether, if something were to happen, they would be able to get the help they need.

I have had friends travel to Liverpool for terminations for medical reasons. One had a diagnosis of Fetal Anachephly: she doesn’t really talk of it, but I think it is a crying shame she had to travel. On the other hand, I have a friend who was told their much-wanted child would not make it past birth. They contemplated travel, but were told by their doctor that she would miscarry before birth. She continued a full pregnancy, and is now deeply traumatized by that birth. They may never have a child now: he worries that his wife has been so affected she is afraid to become pregnant. British friends who have been in the same situation have been offered compassion, care and options – all things denied to Irish women in their home country.

Given the stigma in Ireland around termination, I would not be surprised if more of my friends have travelled but have felt unable to discuss it.

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Sinead McCarthy is a nurse from Galway. She lives in England’s West Midlands.

* What are your thoughts on the Referendum?

To be honest, I’ve been hiding my head in the sand about it. I’m glad I’m in England at the moment. I don’t know a great deal about the Ins and Outs. I know the Eighth Amendment gives equal rights to the woman and the unborn child, and that changing this would only be a very small step towards a very long process of allowing women access abortion in Ireland.

Both sides of the campaign are annoying me, because both are spewing twisted stats and emotive propaganda. Neither seem prepared to listen to each other, and those vocal about it are rude and completely dismissive to each other’s views. All my opinions really are from reading comments from friends on Facebook and comments under articles.

I think it’s a little unfair that ultimately the vote will be decided by those who are past child-bearing age, and they will never be in a position to want or need an abortion. Then again, I dismiss the claim from some of the pro-choice side that men and older women shouldn’t even have a say in abortion. This isn’t democracy and it will affect them indirectly.

I think it is wrong that any woman should have to travel abroad for an abortion. It is an embarrassingly typical Irish approach to turn your head the other way and export the problem. Whether you disagree with abortion or not, I would struggle to accept anyone’s opinion that this is OK, so for this reason mainly I would be voting to Repeal. I think abortion should be accessible in Ireland safely and cheaply.

What do your family and friends think?

I haven’t really spoken to my friends about it. Some seem to be very much in favour of repealing and are vocal about it. My close friends are keeping quiet, but I think they probably have similar opinions to me. I have not heard any of my friends or acquaintances speak out against it. My father never tells anyone how he is voting. My mother is anti-abortion: she sees it as killing a baby and fundamentally wrong. She does agree with me that exporting the problem is wrong, however, but maintains she is unsure how she will vote. She is quite religious and holds some very traditional views.

* What do you feel personally about abortion?

Personally I think it is wrong but I’m not against it. I have lived in England for over half a decade now and worked as a neonatal nurse, so my opinions now have probably changed. I think the use of abortion as a contraception regularly is disgusting, both by the parents and the healthcare professionals enabling this. I have met women who have had six or seven TOPs (termination of pregnancy) and this upsets me.
I also think the routine abortion of infants with potential disabilities is horrible. I think, statistically, 90% of babies with Downs are aborted in this county. Also, as a nurse, I couldn’t work in abortion services.

That being said, I don’t have children. If I were 16 in school, or 21 still in university, and pregnant, I would probably have had an abortion. If I were pregnant now with a baby with trisomy 21, maybe I would feel differently. I think, fundamentally, it should be up to the mother to make her own decisions and deal with the guilt of it, if she feels guilty. Allow informed people their own moral judgement whether it is wrong or not. I think fathers should have a say, but not in every case. In genuine cases of rape it should absolutely be the mother’s choice.

Recently a baby was born at work with a severe life-limiting debilitating condition, a life expectancy of about 2 years at best with constant severe pain. The parents knew this diagnosis and chose to continue the pregnancy. They were Eastern European and strict Catholics. Some of the English nurses thought these parents were cruel for not terminating. In Ireland these parents’ sacrifice, commitment and love to their child would be commended. It’s just an example that shows a different picture. Culture influences your morals and beliefs so much, and this incident really highlighted it for me. It makes me slower to judge others’ opinions. I’m a Catholic by upbringing. I don’t practise religion, but it probably unconsciously influences my views on abortion.

One other point that really irritates me: you hear that a baby at 24 weeks is compatible with life, and yes, babies are born at 23 weeks and some reported cases at 22 weeks who have survived and thrived. I hate hearing the Pro-Life side using these figures for their campaigns. “Compatible with life” does not mean they are born kicking and screaming. They require months of intensive care and medical expertise. Lay people seem to think that once a pregnancy gets to these gestations the baby will be fine. I do not agree with late abortions; however, fundamentally a fetus is not the same as a term baby – they are technically a parasite, dependent on a mother for everything. Yes, a mother has a responsibility to this fetus but her rights should come first.

So, while fundamentally, I am anti-abortion I am also Pro-Choice. There are occasions when I think abortion is acceptable, definitely cases where it is necessary, and perhaps cases where it is morally the right thing to do to avoid suffering for the infant. It should be regulated more to avoid its use as contraception.

* Which way do you think the vote will go?

I would like to think Ireland has progressed enough from an oppressive Vatican-controlled island to repeal the 8th. We voted in favour of gay marriage, but I think this one is a little more controversial, with more people vocally strongly against it. I think there will be a massive turnout of young and first-time voters, and a very close result, but I think the No vote will win again. It will be interesting to see the breakdown of votes between the different counties.

* Has the issue touched you in any way?

No, not that I know of. It would be kept very quiet. It wouldn’t surprise me if any of my close friends have been to England and not told us. In school you would hear rumours, but that would be all.

I would like to hear a Northern Irish opinion, as they too have to travel to England, as far as I know, which baffles me as why we don’t hear more about this.

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Grainne Maguire is a comedian and writer from Navan, Co Meath. She lives in London. Grainne has taken the debate about Choice and Life in different directions: three years ago she live-tweeted details of her menstrual cycle for the attention of Ireland’s then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny, saying how she had thought of her womb as “Ireland’s littlest embassy.”

* What are your thoughts about the Referendum?

I’m really nervous. I can’t help fearing it’ll be like Brexit – you know, we’re getting lulled into a false sense of security, given the role and practices of the media, and the way we imagine all our friends think the same as us. Remember, we’re up against centuries of propaganda from the Catholic Church. So yes, I’m hopeful, but not celebrating just yet.

* What do your family and friends think about the whole thing?

Just the same – that we’re just worried there are lots of undecided people. We won’t really know until Saturday afternoon how the vote has gone. We’re just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.

* What do you feel personally about abortion?

Just that it’s between a woman and her doctor – that the state shouldn’t be involved in it in any way. I did my Twitter protest a few years ago, just to highlight how ridiculous it was about a government getting involved in a woman’s body. Anybody should have the right to decide what happens to their body. I think people just enjoyed the chance just to get involved and do something that was mischievous, and which made the point that the government shouldn’t be involved.

The abortion debate permeates Ireland’s culture – it affects the choices people make. There’s not a lot of public support for women to put themselves first.

* Which way do you think the vote’s going to go?

I have no idea. I really really hope it’ll be Repeal. It’s still undecided. It’ll be very slim, either way. I think it’ll be devastating to everybody if it’s rejected.

* Has the issue touched you in any way?

I’ve known lots of people who have terminated pregnancies, and I think that’s a decision that they have to take – it’s between them and their doctor.

It also affects women in the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland – it’s a British problem, as well.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.