Opinion Worldview

Legalise and Destigmatise

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Ireland goes to the polls this week to vote on whether to repeal the 8th amendment, one of the most controversial pieces of the Irish constitution. Just three years after voting to legalise gay marriage, Ireland has another opportunity to strike a crushing blow against the regressive forces that want to keep the country in the dark ages.

The vote comes mere months before a visit from the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. The church’s influence on the island of Ireland has been deeply pernicious causing extreme amounts of oppression, no more so than its teachings on abortion which has caused an immeasurable amount of stress and misery to many pregnant people throughout the years. The church’s position that life begins at conception and that all forms of abortion are to be prohibited is viewed as extreme across most of the secular world but in Ireland the rights of pregnant people are restricted by the constitution and our media and politics has pandered to anti-choice ideologues for too long. This is the most consequential referendum on abortion since 1983 when the anti-choice extremists managed to dupe the country into voting for the introduction of the 8th amendment based on lies and divisive manoeuvres. But the landscape is dramatically different now with a well organised pro-choice campaign and a Catholic Church which has seen its influence wane due to abuse scandals and its rigid teachings on several social issues.

Ireland has a sordid and troubling history when it comes to its treatment of pregnant people. We of course all heard of the harrowing case involving Savita Halappanavar which made international headlines but there have been cases preceding and following her case which have been deeply shameful too.

Just years after the 1983 referendum the scenario which pro-choice advocates greatly feared came to pass. It became known as the X case and involved a 14 year old girl who had been raped and required an abortion. The state intervened and granted an injunction which forced the girl and her family to travel back from Britain where they had been staying to receive the care she so desperately needed. In the month that followed, her case became the subject of a bitter legal dispute which was eventually settled when the supreme court overturned the high court’s decision and declared she could leave the county to have an abortion. To the shame of the Irish government legislation was never brought forward to protect the mother’s life when her health was at risk.

Savita’s death in 2012 left an indelible mark on the country. Her case was a seminal moment in the country’s attitudes to abortion. While the cause of her death was due to sepsis, the legal inability of doctors to perform an abortion at her request allowed the sepsis to develop. Savita knew there was little chance of her child surviving but was denied an abortion on the grounds that the foetus still had a heartbeat. The author of the report into Savita’s death, Prof Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran has stated that Ireland’s illiberal abortion laws directly led to her death. Her death led to international condemnation and scrutiny of Ireland’s abortion laws and showed the human cost of anti-choice zealotry. If she lived in a country which wasn’t ridden with anti-choice extremism she’d still be alive today. Since her death, pro-choice people have dedicated themselves to make sure her death wasn’t in vain. Her father has also made an emotional plea to the country stating that he will be watching the vote and hopes the country votes for access to abortion.

In response to Savita’s death the protection of life act was brought in and yet it was a very flawed and wholly inadequate piece of legalisation. The flaws were starkly underlined by another horrific case which occurred in 2014. The Y case involved a woman who was brutally raped abroad and who was provided asylum in Ireland, her case was made more difficult by the fact it would have been unlikely for her to have been able to travel to England to have an abortion because of her status. Despite her poor mental state and strong desire to have an abortion she was forced to continue with the pregnancy. Amnesty gave a detailed account of the horrendous treatment Ms Y was subjected to and it’s gruelling to read about. These are the kind of scenarios that will continue to arise if this amendment isn’t repealed.

Only a few months following the Y case we had the deplorable case involving MS P, who despite being clinically brain-dead was kept on life support in the slim chance that her foetus may survive. It caused considerable anguish to her grieving family. All of these cases are a great source of shame for the country. We can not pretend to be a forward-thinking country while we subject people to this kind of treatment.

The inescapable fact is that abortion is already a reality in this country but it’s unsafe, unregulated and puts women under great mental and financial strain. In addition to the use of imported abortion pills which has caused great concern among doctors, thousands of Irish women travel abroad each year to England to have the procedure they so desperately need. At least 170,000 women have made the journey to England since 1980 and on average 12 women a day make the journey. Many of these women have recounted their poignant stories In Her Shoes and it underscores the courage so many Irish women have. Their bravery in sharing their experiences has gone a long way in reducing support for the noxious amendment. If the 8th is retained the country will have chosen to betray these women and continue to subject pregnant people to this unnecessary and emotionally testing journey.

In the video below, a beautiful mosaic of notes sharing the personal stories of many women who have travelled abroad to access abortion services.

Our Right To Choose from Uilu Stories on Vimeo.

The objective of any pro-choice person should not merely be to campaign to legalise abortion but to also remove the stigma from the act of abortion itself since this stigma is so detrimental to people who have had abortions. It’s also what has allowed the anti-choice side to have moralised quite effectively on the issue for so long. Far from being undesirable, abortions are a vital and normal service for those who may need it. In most democracies which have introduced pro-choice legislation the results have been clear: Abortions alleviate suffering not increase it. There will always be isolated cases of people who have bad experiences with abortions, like any medical procedure which contains minor risks but for the bulk of people who require the procedure they go as expected and allow them to go back to living their life without the imposition of an unwanted pregnancy. The No side are correct to state this referendum is about far more than abortion in cases when the mother’s life is in danger or when a victim of rape needs one. We shouldn’t have to distance ourselves from what should be a morally uncontroversial fact. The bulk of abortions will not happen under these circumstances and that’s perfectly okay. Pregnant people who have abortions shouldn’t feel under pressure to rationalise their decision, it’s between them and their family and should not be something for society to pass judgement and sanctimony on. Abortion is not invariably a difficult decision for pregnant people, for some it’s simple and takes away the unnecessary stress a pregnancy would bring. Bringing a baby into the world is a beautiful thing when there’s a genuine desire to care and love for it, but when a pregnancy is imposed on people by force it can become ugly and lead to quite a degree of suffering for the person involved. Legalising abortion is simply about providing more autonomy to pregnant people and this can only be of benefit to wider society.

The desperation of the No Side is laid bare by their provocative tactics throughout the referendum. A side confident of victory wouldn’t resort to such desperate tactics, and this is an expression of intense rage at the realisation they’re losing the battle on this critical social issue. They’ve also tried to imitate the styles of Trump and Brexiters by depicting themselves as fighting against the establishment and being tyrannised by a biased media, being the underdog essentially. This is a standard mindset from people who have had unearned privilege and an unchallenged platform for much too long. Once they’re challenged and their claims no longer treated with the undeserved reverence they once had, they feel oppressed and under attack. The pro-choice side have done well to keep things as civil as possible, and avoid getting personal with the No side, but make no mistake about it: They feel deep feelings of revulsion at the tactless antics of the No Side

The anti-choice side are on such perilous ground when it comes to the morality of abortion they resort to propagating anti-scientific falsehoods. A side sure of their convictions on the morality of an ethical issue would require no need to promote lies because the truth would be more than enough to convince the average person of the virtues of their stance. Some of the untruths they perpetuate include the ideas that abortions cause depression, suicide, cancer and reduce fertility. All of these claims have been repeatedly debunked but it doesn’t stop them advancing these insidious lies because they sow doubts in the public’s mind about abortion. But expert medical opinion matters and it is overwhelmingly in favour of a repeal of the 8th amendment. More than 1000 doctors and The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have expressed support for Yes.

The No Side have claimed that in the event the referendum passes the proposed legislation is extremely radical but in actual fact we’d still be on the conservative end of the European spectrum when it comes to reproductive rights. The mandatory waiting period of three days before the procedure can be done also sets us apart from many European countries and has been criticised for being patronising and infantilising to pregnant people implying that they haven’t seriously considered the decision before arranging for the procedure to be done. What is being proposed is a big step in the right direction but it’s by no means everything pro-choice campaigners wanted. What’s in fact radical is the maintenance of the status-quo which unmistakably distinguishes us from other European countries.

Facebook and Google deserve credit for banning foreign ads related to the referendum on social networks. The anti-choice side have tried to exploit this because they’re aware how ineffective they are on the ground and connecting with run of the mill people. Social media has come under intense scrutiny since the 2016 US elections with many people convinced the promotion of fake news and use of bots determined the outcome of the election. A study has cast doubt on just how influential fake news was but nevertheless the anti-choice since were hellbent on trying to influence the result with money from America. The fact this avenue is now closed to them is deeply gratifying.

Credit must go to leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin for supporting the repeal of the 8th. His party is rife with anti-choice fanatics and he knew the avalanche of abuse his courageous statement would unleash but he outlined his support for repeal and that support underscored just how successful repeal campaigners have been. To get the leader of a party which has always been notorious for anti-abortion prejudice is an incredible feat and just shows how impactful the repeal campaign has been. Simon Harris, minister for health has also been a breath of fresh air on this specific issue, vigorously campaigning for repeal. In addition he has refused to pander to the anti-choice brigade which attracted a lot of personal abuse but instead of kowtowing to them he confronted them on it.

Not every anti-choice person is odious, some sadly have just been deceived by the sheer scale of anti-abortion propaganda which has infested this country since its inception. But everyone who votes no on the 25th May will have chosen to deny human rights and ensure more suffering occurs, a reprehensible act which shouldn’t be excused on the basis of ignorance. While we disagree with anyone who abhors abortion those who have set aside their personal distaste for the procedure and accepted that everyone has the right to decide for themselves warrants some credit. These people have managed to put their personal morals to one side and not violate the human rights of their fellow citizens.

The No side did get a late boost by RTE’s regrettable decision to host a live audience in its first televised debate for the referendum. Peter Boylan who is a dignified man was treated horrendously and you can understand why he was targeted. Boylan who is a consultant obstetrician and former master of the National Maternity Hospital has spoken eloquently and powerfully on why the 8th amendment needs to be repealed. The fact the anti-choice mob targeted him shows you how effective a voice he’s been to the repeal side. An issue of this seriousness deserves a bit more respect than it to be reduced to sheer bedlam more resembling a circus than a dignified, solemn debate on an emotive issue. When it’s kept civil and to the hard facts this will always suit those on the side of evidence and rationality whereas chaos always suits those who peddle lies. RTE’s decision wasn’t based on any sort of journalistic integrity but a selfish urge to attract as many viewers as possible and unsurprisingly it worked.

The amount of people who have protested and campaigned for reproductive rights over the last number of years has been deeply inspiring. People from all age-groups have worked hard to secure the right to choice. We managed to interview a canvasser from the Yes side, Martin Byrne of Balbriggan who has attended pro-choice marches and has canvassed strenuously in the weeks leading up to the referendum.


Martin Byrne and Together For Yes Canvassers.

Hello Martin, as a vehement pro-choice advocate can I first express my appreciation for your tireless campaigning over the past few weeks. I think it speaks to the importance of this issue that so many people from all walks of life have been motivated to get out and campaign.

Have people been more receptive to your pro-choice message than you would have thought?

Everywhere we go we are getting a great welcome. I think that’s because people have seen such a huge amount of ‘No’ postering and messaging that they are happy to see their team showing up. You can also feel the underlying anger in many people – anger at how women have been treated in the country for decades, in fact a century. They want to tell us how determined they are to vote yes and that all of their household is voting yes. So overall we’ve had a great welcome at the doorsteps.

Have you encountered any nastiness or intimidation while out canvassing?

I’ve encountered very little. I was called a murderer by one older lady. She tried to give me a ‘no’ pamphlet and I said ‘No thanks, I trust women to decide’. She said ‘So you don’t mind murdering babies, then’

One man at a doorstep said ‘God gives life and God takes it away’ – I smiled and thanked him for his time. But overall everyone has been very decent and respectful, even if they strongly disagree with what we are saying.

What has impressed you most about the Yes campaign?

I’ve been most impressed by the unity and organisation on the ‘Yes’ side. Every canvass has a leader with maps and an almost military level of canvasser management. I’ve also been impressed by the big variety of people involved. All ages, genders and classes are together for yes, and the atmosphere has been universally positive and welcoming.

The No side have run a decidedly hateful and vitriolic campaign. What did you find most offensive about their tactics?

I found the graphic imagery outside schools and hospitals to be pointlessly offensive. I’ve also found the deliberate misinformation to be frustrating. If one side is going to openly lie, then the other side is left with the job of countering and explaining. They start fires so we have to waste time putting them out instead of getting our own message across.

I find it hard to believe that the organisers of the ‘no’ campaign have any genuine concern about the issues involved. I think some of them are just serial ‘antis’ – be it Equal Marriage, Children’s Rights, Divorce, Contraception, Protection of Live During Pregnancy – they have been anti everything.

And finally, are you confident of a victory in a weeks time?

I’m not completely confident, no. I think it’s going to be very close, and it could still be won or lost on turnout. The last poll has ‘Yes’ with a 16 point lead. But there are still plenty of undecideds and still a week of misinformation and scare tactics from the anti choice side. We are changing our messaging to ‘Plan your vote’ so as to encourage as many people as possible to get out and vote on the day. It could come down to a few votes in each ballot box at the end of the day, as it did with the divorce referendum.

Throughout my article you will have noticed I have used the gender-neutral term “pregnant people”. Of course it goes without saying that misogyny is a major component of the efforts to criminalise abortion in this country. But abortion isn’t an issue that exclusively affects women as both trans men and non-binary people can become pregnant too and may need access to services. Remembering to be inclusive is a small step but goes a long way in helping the trans community to feel welcome in the Repeal campaign. For too long they’ve simply been erased from the debate. Their voice matters too.

Sadly, a victory in a weeks time wouldn’t bring an end to the hateful and odious behaviour of the anti-choice dogmatists. When we have access to abortion they will try to terrorise people who do have abortions and will try to stymie pro-choice legalisation. But that aside, victory would mark the biggest defeat for the anti-choice lobby since the country’s inception and would show that Ireland is a country which values the human rights of its citizens.