In 10 days time, we will be waiting for the results of one of the most important votes of our generation. Over the past few weeks I have felt exhausted, inspired, worn out, grateful and frustrated in equal measures. I am endlessly inspired by my fellow campaigners, especially the women and families who stand up and share their stories, some of them over and over and over again. The people I have met who are knocking on doors night after night are tireless; some of them working in small groups covering huge areas, and though exhausted and stressed and in a constant battle with stigma and negativity, they keep going with a smile because they know exactly why this matters so much.
Because this does matter. It really matters. It is women’s lives, women’s health and well being, families and relationships. There are real people, real families at the core of this ‘debate’. Nothing about this is abstract. It is all too real.
Last night I was at an event in Galway, listening to Dr. Peter Boylan talk about his perspective on the 8th and why a Yes vote is so important – more on that shortly. Before the event started, a woman sat beside me and introduced herself. She looked tired and emotional. We chatted for a while, and the conversation turned to the Claire Byrne show of the night before. We both rolled our eyes gave out about the general circus that the show had been, and talked about how offensive terms like ‘hard cases’ are, dismissing real people’s lived experiences as irrelevant. She told me she had found the whole thing very distressing as she had lost a baby to FFA a few years ago. She was angry and hurt and said she felt compelled to tell her story now.
And that is what she did. She stood in front of a room of strangers and told her story. Of how kindly the doctor had delivered the news, during her second pregnancy, that her baby had anencephaly, of how the same doctor told her gently ‘we can’t help you here’. She talked about booking flights and appointments, totalling €2,000, a significant cost for a couple with a young family. She talked about leaving their daughter with her grandparents while her and her husband travelled to the airport, dazed and hurt and traumatised. She talked about how kind and compassionate the staff at the clinic were. She talked about not finding out what sex her baby was, and having to leave their baby behind in Liverpool. She talked about walking the streets of Liverpool for 5 hours afterwards while they waited for their flight. She talked about being at peace with her decision, knowing that it was the right decision for her and her family. But the additional hurt and trauma of being forced to travel, to leave her family and child and doctors so that she could receive care and kindness from strange doctors in a strange city rang through everything she said. Afterwards Peter Boylan said that if you needed just one reason to vote Yes to remove the 8th amendment, that story was it.
I bit back tears at the carelessness with which we treat our women, at the heartlessness and hypocrisy that enables us to send women away or deny them appropriate medical care. And for the millionth time I thought, this has to change. It just has to. For this woman and all the thousands upon thousands of women who we have abandoned. It is purely a matter of chance that I have not been among those women. Some of the smartest, most compassionate, capable and strong women I know have been among them.
All of the women and families who have shared their stories, and all of the women who haven’t, all of us who live with the shadow of the 8th hanging over us deserve more than misinformation and fear. Everyone who is undecided and wants to do the right thing deserves not to have the facts drowned out by fear and shouting. All of us deserve more than graphic images and intimidation.
So here is my attempt to address some of the myths and misinformation about the 8th.
We will be introducing one of the most liberal abortion regimes in the world.
Firstly, this is a vote to remove the 8th amendment from the Constitution. It is not a vote to approve of legislation. No legislation can be introduced until the 8th is removed. When the 8th is removed, the legislation will be introduced and debated in the Dáil just like any other legislation.
The published Heads of Bill outline abortion legislation that is still quite restrictive, and is in line with the minimum standards in most European countries. It includes access to abortion without restriction as to reason up to 12 weeks, and after that where is a real risk to life of the mother (as per our current legislation), in cases of FFA and where there is a serious risk to the health of the mother. If you want to find out more about abortion access in other European countries, and around the world, this is a great resource http://worldabortionlaws.com/
1 in 5 pregnancies end in abortion in the UK and I don’t want that to happen in Ireland
I’m not a statistician so can’t delve in too much to the data behind this but this article does a good job of analysing this, in particular the fact that it discounts miscarriages http://www.thejournal.ie/save-the-8th-poster-statistic-abortion-3951738-Apr2018/
We do not know the rate of abortions in Ireland. We know the number of women who give an Irish address in UK clinics – around 4,000 every year. We know there are others who do not give an Irish address and others who travel to different jurisdictions. We know there are over 1,000 women who order pills online every year but because this act in and of itself carries a 14 year prison sentence, we will never know the accurate numbers of women in Ireland who have abortions each year.
We are currently depending on ‘UK style abortion’ to provide care to women in Ireland. Irish women are currently among that 1 in 5 statistic.
During the marriage equality referendum, there was scare mongering that we would all have to become gay and marry each other. That didn’t happen. During the divorce referendum,there was scare mongering that no one would take marriage seriously and everyone would be getting divorced without a second though. That didn’t happen. We don’t know what our current rate of abortion is, but there is no reason to think that it will be the same as the UK.
Finally, the Netherlands has more liberal access to abortion than what is being proposed here. They also have free contraception and excellent sex education, and they have one of the lowest abortion rates in Europe. Every other country in Europe, with the exception of Malta and Poland, has some form of access without restriction as to reason. Could it be that the reason we hear so much about England is because that is the place where most Irish women travel for abortion care?
As for the ‘don’t bring this to Ireland’ part; we already have abortion in Ireland. Women are already travelling and taking abortion pills. It is already here and always has been. We have unsafe, unregulated abortion. We have the strange and hurtful hypocrisy of legalising abortion for Irish women in another jurisdiction. We are already trusting Irish women to make the decision to have an abortion, just not in Ireland, and not safely.
Women will use abortion as contraception
OVe 50% of women who have abortions are on contraception, but no form of contraception is 100%. Abortion is not a pleasant experience. No woman wants to have an abortion, no one sets out with the intention of having an abortion. But women do need abortions, and we know that up to 5,000 women already make this decision in Ireland every year. Women make decisions about their reproductive lives every day; they go to the doctor, get the pill, buy condoms, take the morning after pill, anxiously watch for that line on the pregnancy test. Every day a woman thinks through the decision to continue or end a pregnancy. Right now, women are talking things through, researching, talking to their doctors and partners about contraception. We take our bodies, health and lives seriously. No one is flippant about their lives and bodies. We understand the seriousness of pregnancy and parenthood, we understand abortion, we understand our bodies and health and our families. Listen to the women around you and you will soon realise this.
If you think women will be running around having multiple abortions, ask yourself who these women are? Are they your sister, friend, partner, daughter, daughter in law?
Introducing free contraception and improved sex education would be a positive step towards reducing the need for abortion. I hope that will form a significant part if the Ireland we build together after the 8th is removed.
I’ve been on contraception most of my adult life. I’ve never been pregnant, but that’s not to say I never will be and it’s not to say that I won’t ever need an abortion.
Abortion will be available up to 6 months – it’s in the legislation.
No, it’s not. The following is a summary of what is in what is in the Head of Bill regarding gestational limits:
- Up to 12 weeks without restriction as to reason. This is not ‘no reason’ – nobody has an abortion for no reason, it simply means that a woman does not have to disclose or justify her reason. This is internationally recognised as the only compassionate way to support women who are pregnant as a result of rape. 95% of abortions happen before 12 weeks, and the majority of those are before 10 weeks. There will be a 72 hour waiting period between the initial consultation and the procedure itself..
- After the first trimester, abortion will be provided in limited circumstances which are where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, in diagnoses of FFA and where there is a threat to the physical or mental health of the mother. These will be signed off by two doctors.
- After the point of viability – around 23/24 weeks, this will involve an early induction of labour and a live birth where possible.
12 weeks is not a target. Where accessibility is good, women access abortion as early as possible. The majority of abortions up to 12 weeks are medical abortions i.e using the abortion pill. Many women do not find out they are pregnant until 6-8 weeks, so a shorter time period would place women under undue pressure to make a decision.
Abortions in later pregnancy are extremely rare. They are often wanted and loved pregnancies, as in cases of FFA or where a risk to health develops or becomes untenable for a women who is pregnant. For a woman with epilepsy or diabetes, a woman with a heart condition, a woman with depression, a woman with a physical disability, a woman taking warfarin, for these and so many other women, pregnancy can pose a very real risk to their health. Many choose to continue a pregnancy knowing the risk to their health. Others do not. Either way, they weigh up all factors, not least the impact on any children they already have, their relationships, their current and future health prospects.
If you do want to read more about why women access abortions after 20 weeks, this BPAS report is an interesting read https://www.bpas.org/media/2027/late-abortion-report-v02.pdf
Finally, no change is possible without removing the 8th. This is a vote to remove the 8th so that legislation CAN be introduced.
A foetus is fully formed at 12 weeks, so 12 weeks is a step too far
I’m clearly not a doctor, but I have listened to Dr. Peter Boylan several times, who is the current chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. He makes the point that if a foetus was in fact fully formed at 12 weeks, why does pregnancy last for 40 weeks? At 12 weeks, the brain and lungs are not fully formed, the eyes are fused shut, the nerve system has not fully developed. The biological basics might be there, but that does not equate to a fully formed life.
As I’ve said above, the majority of abortions happen before 10 weeks. Many women don’t know they are pregnant until 6-8 weeks. 12 weeks is the absolute European minimum standard for access without restriction as to reason. It is the only way to provide access for women who are pregnant as a result of rape without retraumatizing them.
Under our current system, Irish women typically access abortion later because of the need to get funds together for travel and clinic fees, arranging child care, booking time off work etc. This results in women continuing a pregnancy for several weeks after they have made their decision, which can have a negative impact on their mental health and well being.
Women are already having abortions up to 12 weeks. They are simply doing it either in England or on their own, at home, without medical support should something go wrong. A Yes vote and the proposed legislation simply means that women can access that care at home, safely, and with the care of their doctor. I appreciate that people might struggle with the idea of 12 weeks, but the facts tells us that it is not a step too far, it is simply a step into reality.
There is nothing in the legislation about access on grounds of disability. Nothing. As it stands, if a woman or couple receive a diagnosis of Down Syndrome or another disability (usually at around 22 weeks, earlier testing is only available privately) they may decide to travel. This is already happening. Many women and couples choose to continue their pregnancy. This is what will continue to happen, regardless of the outcome of this referendum. Every woman, every family deserves support, regardless of what decision they make.
Finally, people with disabilities also need access to abortion. Women with disabilities can also become pregnant. Just like everyone else, they should have the right to healthcare and agency over their sexual and reproductive lives.
I believe that abortion does not discriminate, but that restricting access to abortion does. It discriminates against migrant women, against traveller women, against women with disabilities, by limiting the options available to those already having to fight hard for their health and healthcare. Listen to the perspectives of groups like People with Disabilities for Choice and Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice. Listen to advocates like Eileen Flynn. Listen to the parents of children with Down Syndrome who are hurt and offended at the insinuation that the only reason they have their children is because they could not have an abortion.
We can do infinitely better in this country on supports for people with disabilities. Retaining the 8th will not do that. There has been 35 years to do better on this as a society and we have failed. We can provide compassionate abortion care AND better supports for children and adults with disabilities. The two are in no way mutually exclusive.
Unborn babies will have no constitutional protection
I’m no constitutional lawyer or expert, but I do know that Ireland is the only country in Europe to have an equal right to life amendment in its Constitution. So every other country manages to offer protection to mothers and children, both born and unborn, without needing a Constitutional amendment. Many of these countries also do far better than we do on maternal care, access to childcare, housing, and supports for children with disabilities.
I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that there needs to be something in the Constitution to protect ‘the unborn’, the idea that children in utero need protecting from the women carrying them.
Let’s remember that children can also become pregnant. A 12 year old recently received abortion care in an English clinic having travelled from Ireland. Miss X was a 14 year old who had been raped. These children also need our protection and support and clearly the 8th amendment has done nothing at all to do this.
I agree with abortion in cases of rape and FFA but not abortion for no reason
This means that you are ok with abortion in cases where the woman has suffered, not where she is making a decision for reasons that are not immediately visible to you. So the issue here is not with abortion, but with how the woman became pregnant and the nature of her pregnancy.
No woman has an abortion for no reason. There is always a reason. That reason may not be visible or obvious, it may be harrowing, it may be something we can or cannot relate to. But it is always a reason that is personal and important to that woman. The reasons behind their decisions should not concern anyone else. There are no good or bad abortions. There is only the abortion that a woman needs at a certain time in her life.
Our health system won’t cope with having to provide abortion
At the end of last week, 1,300 doctors in Ireland committed to providing abortion care once the 8th is removed. I have heard both Dr Mary Favier and Dr Peter Boylan speak about this. If a conservative estimate of 1,000 GPs (out of the 1,800 GPs in Ireland) provide abortion care, they may see 4-5 women a year – this may be slightly more in higher density areas. It will not be a woman every day, it won’t even be a woman every week or every month. I believe doctors want to care for their patients. For later term and more complex abortions, these will require consultation and sign off from 2 doctors and will take place under the care of maternal care teams, just like they currently do in clinics and hospitals in other countries. If a doctor does object on grounds of conscience, they will be obliged to refer their patient to another doctor who will provide that care. They are not obliged to provide abortion care, but they also cannot obstruct a woman’s care when she has made that decision.
So many people want to have children and can’t. Isn’t adoption an alternative?
Fertility and pregnancy are always personal and often difficult. I don’t have children and don’t know if I ever will, or if I can, even though I would love to be a Mammy some day. Forcing another woman to remain pregnant when she does not want to be will never change that. Forcing another woman to remain pregnant will not change someone else’s fertility challenges or undo the pain of a miscarriage.
Adoption is an alternative to parenting, not to pregnancy. Should a 14 year old rape victim be forced to carry a pregnancy? Should a woman be forced to take huge gambles with her health to continue a pregnancy? Should a woman be denied medical treatment so that she can continue a pregnancy? Should a woman who knows she is not ready to be a mother be forced to remain pregnant? Should a woman whose baby will die before or just after birth be forced to continue a pregnancy?
I don’t know a huge amount about adoption legislation in Ireland, but The Adoption Rights Alliance issued a strong statement regarding adoption being promoted as an alternative to abortion which is worth a read. Adoption is certainly a choice, but it is not and cannot be the only choice.
I believe life begins at conception
There is no medical, scientific or religious consensus on when life begins. Prior to the 1860s, the Catholic belief was that life began an quickening (around 22 weeks). In Judaism, life begins at birth. If you believe life begins at conception, you are absolutely entitled to have that belief. But it is a belief, it is not a fact. I can respect someone’s belief that life begins at conception, I can understand someone morally disagreeing with abortion. That is fine, and that will always be fine, whether the 8th is removed or retained. But I don’t expect to have that belief forced on me and I certainly do not expect that belief to be enshrined in the Constitution that governs my life as someone who lives in Ireland.
The 8th does not endanger women’s lives
Yes, it does.
Savita Halapanaavar died because of the 8th amendment. The cause of the death was sepsis, but this sepsis would not have developed had she been given an abortion when she requested it. Her doctors hands were tied because of the ambiguity of the 8th. To quote Prof Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran “She did have sepsis. However, if she had a termination in the first days as requested, she would not have had sepsis. If she had the termination when asked for it, the sepsis would not arise.We would never have heard of her and she would be alive today,”
In 2010, Michelle Harte, a mother of one, who was ill with cancer, was advised by her doctors to terminate her pregnancy. The ethics board of Cork University Hospital disagreed so she was denied an abortion on the grounds that her life was not in immediate danger. This process caused a 3-4 week delay in Michelle’s care, as did the fact that she did not have a passport. She could not receive cancer treatment during this time because she was pregnant, and by the time she travelled to the UK she was extremely ill. Michelle died in 2011.
Sheila Hodgers was denied cancer treatment because she was pregnant. She died two days after giving birth to her third child, who also died.
Aisha Chitira was a Malawian woman who had settled in Ireland and was a mother of one. She had a history of fibroids, and had previously miscarried twins late in pregnancy. She had to wait for a month for a visa to travel to the UK so she was 22 weeks pregnant by the time she travelled. The procedure was complicated by her underlying health conditions. There were issues with the care she received, and she bled to death in the back of a taxi in London. Many point to this case as highlighting how unsafe abortion is. If Aisha had been able to access that care here in Ireland, not only would she have done so earlier in her pregnancy, but under the care of doctors who were familiar with her medical history and particular care needs.
If the 8th is not removed, if we continue with the status quo, more women will die. There will be another Savita, another Aisha, another Michelle, another Sheila. A woman will die because she takes the pills not realising she has an ectopic pregnancy, or not realising the dangers of taking the pills if you have previously had a C section.
How is it that we have come to a place where we believe that a woman not dying is an acceptable bar to set? How is it that we have decided to compromise women’s safety and lives so that a certain set of beliefs can remain enshrined in our constitution?
You can see some doctors talking about why they support a Yes vote here https://www.togetherforyes.ie/doctors/
I want to see this passed so that women can stop having to tell their stories. I want to see it passed so that we no longer have something in our Constitution that endangers women, that pits women and their pregnancies against each other. I want no more women to have to make that lonely journey, to sit at home waiting for that package. The decision to have an abortion will always be one that people make – to quote Tara Flynn, ‘it is not an every day decision, but it is a decision that is made every day’.
Women have always and will always need abortions. I want them to be able to do that in a way that is safe and supported and free from judgement and shame, in their own country. I’m voting yes so that women no longer have to ask for their experiences to be heard and valued. I’m voting yes for the care that me and my friends might one day need. I’m voting yes for the future generations and in particular my niece, so that she does not have to grow up under the heavy shadow of the 8th. I’m voting yes for every couple who had to leave their baby in an English hospital. I’m voting yes for all of the women who have travelled and all of the women who cannot travel. I’m voting yes for the Ireland I know we can be. I’m voting yes because I know life does not fit into neat little boxes, it does not fit into a few lines in a Constitution, it is complicated and nuanced and personal and surely we can show a little kindness and compassion to each other as we navigate the twists and turns of life.
I have listened, and still listen, to women and families who have lived this. I have listened to how much more difficult and damaging we made it for them, I have listened to them say that they do not regret their abortions, but they regret the process they were forced to go through to have an abortion that they needed at that time.
A Yes vote is saying that we see every woman who has shared her story and every woman who hasn’t. It says that we see their decision and we love and value them. A No votes is saying that we are willing to continue the status quo, that we know has caused hurt and pain to countless women and families over the past 35 years. We know it has endangered women’s lives and health. We know women have died because of it. A No vote says that we are ok with that. A Yes vote says that that is not good enough and that women in Ireland deserve so much more.
Over the last few days so many tourists have come up to me to wish us luck. They have expressed surprise at the fact we have to vote at all and even more surprise that we have no abortion access here. One of them said they’d be watching this as a moment in our history. It is certainly a moment in our history and I will be marking it with a firm Yes vote on May 25th.
So I’ll leave the final word with two women. While I have checked with both of them that I can share this, I’m leaving both of them anonymous as it is ultimately not my story to tell. Both of these women deserved support and care that we did not give them. Both of them, and all of the others whose stories we may never hear, all deserve our Yes, and that is what I will be doing on May 25th. I hope you will too.
“On this day, seven years ago, we said hello and goodbye to our Oliver. We were there that day, at Whittington Hospital in London, together – with him, with his grandparents and his aunt and uncle and a team of caring midwives. Today we’re still together – me and my best friend in our repeal the 8th gear, our two gorgeous kiddies, and thousands of grassroots activists out walking the streets all over Ireland to ask for a YES to healthcare at home, for care and compassion not just for those who were forced to say goodbye, like we were, but also those who, for all kinds of complex, valid reasons are not yet ready or able to say hello”
“…I was in a serious and long term relationship, but we were not in a place to commit to each other or to parenting. The 8th amendment is not an abstraction to me. It is a reality. It did not stop me from having an abortion, it prevented me from having an abortion under medical supervision. If I had been in New York when I had been pregnant, I would have been able to go to a doctor; here I was too scared to even go for a scan to ensure it was not an ectopic pregnancy……Deciding to have an abortion was a choice that allows me to live my life as I want to…”
Other useful resources/organisations, all are on Facebook and Twitter:
- In Her Shoes
- Lawyers Together for Yes
- Doctors Together for Yes
- People with Disabilities Together for Yes
To see all of the organisations supporting a Yes vote, visit https://www.togetherforyes.ie/about-us/campaign-platform-members/