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.
Please 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.