My social media today has been mostly filled with two cries:
- 1) UK: International Women’s Day > let’s celebrate women, and continue the fight for equality;
- 2) Ireland: Repeal the 8th Amendment, in light of today’s march and ahead of May’s referendum > please recognise Irish women’s basic human rights, and vote to repeal the 8th amendment, even if you personally are morally opposed to abortion.
As an Irish mother living in the UK – a country that trusts its women to make the right decisions for themselves – it staggers me that, in the 21st century, women in Ireland are still fighting for basic rights when it comes to their own bodies and reproductive systems, so I thought I’d pen a few words, especially about my own pretty traumatic pregnancy experience in the UK, where thankfully my rights were recognised.
In 1918, women fighting for their right to vote shouted: “Votes for Women”. In 2018, Irish women shout: “Votes for Repeal.” The 8th amendment’s constitutional protection for a foetal right to life has jeopardised the health and lives of Irish women, as many doctors – knowing they face a potential sanction of life imprisonment – fail to perform terminations for women even when they meet the criterion under which it’s currently permissible. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 is perhaps the most famous recent example of this, when a life-saving termination was denied to her, and she died, an inquest found, from sepsis, e-coli and miscarriage.
The constrains of the 8th amendment are far-reaching. For example, I remember being in university in Ireland in the early 2000s, and being in a position to want/need the morning-after pill. It’s worth noting that this is something that in the UK you can buy over the counter at a pharmacy. Your protection fails etc, and with one tablet, taken within a couple of days, it means that a pregnancy doesn’t result from that mistake. In Ireland? The university doctor I went to refused me, saying she “didn’t morally agree with that” and sent me on my merry way. After all, I’d made my bed and so should lie in it, eh? Good old Ireland. I would argue – and did, not that it did any good – that surely her moral beliefs should be irrelevant in a medical situation where someone was asking for a pill to simply prevent a pregnancy from happening. No joy, and so I had to seek out another doctor who was willing to actually do their job and recognise my right to make this kind of decision for myself about my own body. This is 8th Amendment Ireland. Hardly surprising I left as soon as I could.
Last month ministers approved the draft wording of a bill to hold the vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment. If passed, the constitutional ban on abortion would be replaced with a new amendment stating that “provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancies”. This would mean that abortion would no longer be regulated by constitutional law and instead would be set by the Oireachtas. And the thing is: it’s not just about abortion, which so many of the “pro-life” anti-choice folk seem to forget… the reason there has been a call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution is so that full reproductive health services, including access to abortion, can be made available in line with best medical practice, international human rights norms and the will of the majority of people in Ireland. In order to make any changes to legislation, the Eighth Amendment has to be repealed. Women’s lives matter too.
The petition to repeal the Eighth Amendment states that the Eight Amendment equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with that of an embryo or foetus. In doing so it criminalises abortion in all cases except where to continue a pregnancy would result in death. his archaic and dangerous law:
– infringes on the human rights of women in Ireland and goes against international human rights norms
– denies access to basic health care, forcing over 154,000 to travel overseas to obtain an abortion since 1980 
– criminalises those who self-administer abortion pills in Ireland
– maintains a false and medically dangerous distinction between risk to health and risk to life
– discriminates against those who cannot travel to obtain abortions
– does not reflect present public opinion in Ireland
I recently had reason to come across another contrast in terms of the way women are treated; my own birth story in the UK only serves to highlight various places the Irish system falls down, by taking choice away from the mother.
In Ireland, if going through the public healthcare channel, thousands of pregnant mothers don’t have access to routine mid-pregnancy scans to check for abnormalities in their babies, including fatal foetal conditions. It’s a lottery as to what maternity unit they happen to be in. Several units, such as Portlaoise Hospital, only carry out the scan for clinical reasons or for women deemed at risk. Of those who happen to be scanned, and tragically have fatal foetal abnormalities detected, some have to travel to Britain for a termination rather than it be offered in Ireland.
Women who aren’t offered the scan run the risk of having a baby whose anomaly has not been diagnosed, which could prove fatal to the baby post-birth. Those who aren’t offered the scan, whose baby has a fatal foetal condition, aren’t given the chance to prepare in advance for the baby’s passing.
This time 4 years ago I was just passed the 20-weeks pregnancy mark with twins, and at the anomaly scan – offered as standard in the UK to everyone – a kidney problem was detected in one twin. It’s worth noting that I was a first-time mum with no previous history, and so, had I been in Ireland having a single pregnancy, it’s very possible this 20-week scan wouldn’t even have been offered to me, and this anomaly never detected. This scan, and the early detection of my son’s problem, is the reason he’s alive today.
I was scanned frequently after this point, with Great Ormond Street Hospital involved for the rest of the pregnancy. Post-birth he seemed totally fine, and didn’t have any worrying symptoms, but a scan and subsequent blood test a few days after birth – which had been arranged because of the anomaly scan – showed severe renal failure, and what followed was one of the worst 24 hours of my life, where it was hour to hour as to whether he would live or not. He was 5 days old. Due to the amazing medical care he received he pulled through, spending a further couple of days critical, and then another month in hospital, before being released with complex medical needs requiring a huge amount of specialist care/medicine etc, and the knowledge a kidney transplant would be needed in early childhood.
But where my picture varies mostly to my Irish counterparts is what happened immediately after the 20-week scan.
We were given the available information, and ultimately I was given the choice about how to proceed. The doctors told us what they could, and trusted us to assess that within the context of the reality we were living (i.e. jobs, money, responsibility to other kids we might have already had, our mental health history, ability to cope, family support etc). They were realistic about how – if the child was born with severe kidney problems – it would be something that would have a life-changing impact on the family, and we were gently encouraged to think of things from all angles before deciding what was best for us. At no point were we swayed, and our right to make the best decision for us was totally respected.
Ultimately we decided to continue with the pregnancy, having the advantage over some of being a two-parent family, having reliable income, a house we own (well, have a mortgage on), no other kids depending on us, no other disabled kids/family members who depend on us.
And that was the right decision for us then, and not something we’d change/regret, but I can hand-on-heart say that having twins where one has a life-threatening chronic illness and requires a huge amount of medical attention, when you don’t have family living close to you, is not something everyone would be in the situation to cope with.
And if parents know in advance that what they’re facing isn’t something they will cope with, for whatever the reason specific to them, I don’t understand why they should be forced down a road they know they won’t be able to deal with.
People say, shur family/friends will rally round etc, but in reality? Do more than a handful offer actual physical tangible help when you’re in a constant/day-after-day long-term battle? The answer, simply, is no. People have their own lives, and you’re expected to get on with it. At one of my broken moments, 7 months in, trying to get a family member to understand how bad things were and how much I was drowning, trying to cope with everything (we’d just had a house fire for good measure), they kindly reminded me that it had been my decision to get pregnant… my husband and I had chosen to go down this road, hadn’t we. There was another bed I’d made, so lie in it.
Again, the decision we made that terrible day was the right decision for us and me then. And it’s easy for some to say, see, it all worked out, didn’t it? You didn’t have a mental breakdown, did ye? And you’re just about coping, aren’t ye? But let’s play devil’s advocate…
What if I got pregnant with twins again, in London with no family around, already having twins where one needs a transplant soon, and both twins I was carrying had the same life-threatening condition as my son? Do I think I would cope then? Realistically: No. Do I think I would be able to properly care for the kids I have who already exist? No. I imagine the decision I would make second time round would have to be different to first time round, if I was going to be able to properly care for the kids I already have. My kids – who have been born, are alive and are here now and need my care – are my priority, and they have a right to be cared for to the best of my ability.
But none of that would come into it in Ireland. The choice wouldn’t be mine, even though I’m 100% the best person to make that decision. Why are women in Ireland not trusted enough to know what is the right decision for them? In Ireland the Eight Amendment equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with that of an embryo or foetus, but from the second she’s pregnant in Ireland that woman comes second.
In January the Cabinet agreed to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment before the end of May.
I urge you to consider how this amendment:
- represses the woman’s right over her own body/reproductive system, and the choices she’s free to make in the pregnancy;
- allows doctors make decisions biased by their own personal beliefs on the system, refusing some women the right to birth control/the morning after pill, which have life-changing consequences for the woman;
- denies women across to the country access to a consistent level of antenatal care (e.g. 20-week anomaly scan, which can actually save children’s lives);
- exports the issue rather than dealing with it.
Pease consider voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment to allow the government to introduce legislation that ensures the human rights of women in Ireland are no longer being infringed on, and that this law no longer goes against international human rights norms. Only with repeal of the Eighth Amendment can we begin to change our abortion laws and provide full reproductive healthcare for women and girls in Ireland. No woman should be forced to leave the country for the healthcare they deserve and are entitled to.
On March 8th, women in Ireland will march for our right to choice in the future. I’ll be with you all in spirit, ladies.
Her body. Her choice. My vote.
Amongst other things right now, I’ve been thinking about ‘home’ and displacement….
I don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to know that the combination of the following four factors is the cause:
- When I started writing this earlier I was in the restaurant/café of our local Sainsbury’s. (There’s glamour in the world of being a book editor/working mum, I tell you *she said, as she typed away to the aromatic smell of haddock fishcake…*)
We’ve had to move out of our house due to an unexpected complication in our building work, and pack up all our bits and bobs (for what feels like the hundredth time) to move into a temporary apartment until the New Year. We’re still tied to the twins’ nursery (where they have to attend so I can work/meet my deadlines). I could only find 3-hour local parking beside the workspace I’d booked for today… at which point it was off to Sainsbury’s, so there I was… another day of moving from pillar to post.
- Also, yesterday was the three-year anniversary of a car crashing through the front of our house (when the twins were 18-weeks-old, one recovering from an operation they’d had just over a week prior), thrusting us into unimaginable chaos – which I don’t say lightly as the previous 18 weeks we’d somehow survived through were pretty up there in terms of stress levels.
(The house fire in our rented house 2 months later is perhaps for another day…. only so much trauma-recounting I can manage in one post…!)
- I recently read an article/watched a clip that’s really stayed with me, about an old Irish woman’s opinion of the ‘refugee crisis’, and how it shocks her, with the history that Irish people have had of having to leave, that Irish people could now turn their backs on those who’ve had to leave everything behind/many risking their lives to cross the water to a better life, like countless Irish before them.
- Finally, being around water a lot recently.
Much to the surprise of so many friends and family who’ve said they can’t imagine doing such a big house project with young twins, and everything else going on, point 1 isn’t actually that bad, perhaps because of the point 2.
Planned building work isn’t that dramatic, when you can prep for it, and you have in the background the experience of a huge rebuild unexpectedly landing on your lap when you’re at the most physically/emotionally broken you have ever been in your life. Even having to move out unexpectedly at the weekend hasn’t felt like a big deal, to be honest.
A big reason why is that three years ago yesterday, we were 18 weeks into our new insane life of twins/kidney-failure management when the car drove into our house. 18 weeks on top of the 17 horrendous, draining weeks of stress and anxiety prior to this, following our 20-week anomaly scan, worrying/fretting, on a daily (to be honest, hourly) basis as to whether Twin 1 would make it at all, the joy and excitement of pregnancy robbed from us in that sonographer’s pause.
Then bang, reality, and the one of the worst-case scenarios predicted at the time – kidney failure, with him barely pulling through – becomes the reality.
I’ll fast forward there to 18 weeks of hardly no sleep later, when the car, literally, crashed into our lives. And I don’t mean the ‘no sleep’ people of a single healthy newborn/baby often say when they mean they were woken 4 or 5 times, but still probably got about 2, or 3, or even 4-5 hours… I mean no sleep…. zilch… de nada, for days on end, as we struggled with two newborns in different locations (our son came home when he was a month old), and the enormous amount of extra work that comes with having a chronically ill kid (he was fed by tube then, and ended up being on a newborn feeding schedule, being fed every 3-4 hours, day and night, for the first year – with crippling reflux, meaning 20-30 vomits every day until he was 14 months). My husband and I experienced a significant number of hallucinations during this period, as our minds and bodies were pushed into a land of sleep-depravity on par with torture victims, and our emotional wellbeing took on the form of a rollercoaster ride.
But we got through it, and three years later that experience, and so many others in the mix since, have thankfully led to a resilience that will be helpful on the journey ahead.
Then, last week, as we packed up the last of the kitchen, and prepared, yet again, to leave our home, I thought: do you know what, despite all that, three years ago we really were lucky… Three years ago we knew that eventually we’d be coming back to our house, and that the rest of our life around that house would be as it was before.
I couldn’t help thinking again – and it’s something that’s been especially playing on my mind so much since – of those fleeing Syria etc, who are having to walk out of their homes (for those lucky enough to not have had them bombed) and walk away from everything, with tiny babies in tow, not even sure that they will make it to the end of that day alive, not to mind a destination where they might be offered sanctuary from the inevitable death that awaits them where they are. People with kids as young as the twins were then/younger/as sick/sicker… it’s hard to even imagine how any of them must feel leaving their home – something that should be our sanctuary. I think of the stress we had, that I’ve detailed above, and the tiredness and fear we felt, and know that’s merely a fraction of what these people are facing as their current normality.
I know from my experience that when it comes to my kids I will – and have – pushed myself beyond the limits of what I could have imagined to keep them safe/provide for them, but my position of privilege means what I’ve experienced is only a drop in comparison to what those parents, getting into tiny boats, putting lifejackets on their kids (if they were even lucky enough to have got some before they ran out), willing for nature and luck to be on their side. If they’re not on side: death. But death if they stay. It’s unimaginable.
For anyone who’s read this and wonders if there is any small way they can help, some more info here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/syria-refugees-what-you-can-do-to-help–2
“Home” by Warsan Shire
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here