On Friday 25 May, the people of Ireland will go to the polls and vote, not for politicians or parties, but on whether or not the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution — the ‘Pro-Life’ amendment as it is often called due to the fact it equates the life of the unborn with that of the woman — should be removed from the Constitution.
It has the potential to be a historic day in Irish history, and since the announcement of the referendum’s date the campaign to either repeal or keep has gotten underway with earnest. The ‘Together for Yes’ group — those wishing to repeal the amendment — and the various ‘Save the Eighth’ groups — those wishing to keep it — have put up posters on lamp-posts, handed out fliers and canvassed towns, cities and local authorities in the hopes of convincing undecided people to vote to either keep or repeal the Eighth.
Passed in 1983 largely thanks to the far more organised, well-funded and politically well-connected pro-life groups in the country, the Eighth has always been a controversial topic in Irish politics. Those on the political left — Labour, the Greens, Social Democrats, Sinn Fein and the various Trotskyite groups — are and have largely always been opposed to the Amendment. Fine Gael are largely split on the issue, though it appears most of the party’s elected members in Dáil support the amendment’s repeal; whilst Fianna Fail, who gave the Amendment and the various pro-life groups its backing in the 1983 campaign, are largely against its repeal, with the notable exceptions of party leader Michael Martin and other front-benchers like Stephen Donnelly, Billy Kelleher and Lisa Chambers.
My personal views on the issue are, if you couldn’t already tell by the title of this piece, on the side of the Together for Yes campaign. The Eighth is an antiquated, Byzantine piece of legislation that is from a different time and a different Ireland, an Ireland where even simple things like contraception and divorce were deemed illegal by the State. I am aware however that not all that read this piece will share that view, hence its purpose: To explain why it is important that the Eighth Amendment is repealed in order to allow women in Ireland to receive free, safe and legal abortions.
Reason 1: The Eighth doesn’t stop abortions — It cruelly exports them instead.
This has long been the dirty little secret for Ireland; our ‘secret shame’ if you will. The Eighth Amendment only stops abortions in Ireland, but not across the water in the UK. It is estimated that between 3,200 and 4,000 Irish women from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland travelled to England or Scotland to get an abortion in 2016, and since 1968 a total of around 19,900 have made that journey. Such a number doesn’t include the approximately 1,000 or so women who ordered abortion pills online, pills that in some cases are hugely medically unsafe.
Through the Eighth, the Irish government has for years washed its hands of all responsibility, leaving it up the UK’s NHS and other abortion, family planning and women’s health organisations in the UK to help Irish women seek what is considered in many countries to be a basic medical procedure.
Reason 2: The Eighth punishes women who have been raped.
If you become pregnant after being raped, you cannot get an abortion in Ireland. To be honest here folks, I don’t think I need to explain the injustice of this. No woman who has been raped should be forced to carry a baby as a result of that horrific experience to term.
(Photo by Ruairi Luke McCallan)
Reason 3: The Eighth punishes younger women and those at the bottom.
Now, some pro-life activists may just say “hey, just go to England, it’s not that hard”. And they’re right, it’s not that hard if you have the cash, something that many who need to get an abortion don’t have. Combining things like flight costs, hotel room costs for between three-to-five days and other costs such as transport to and from airports, women who travel to get abortions have to spend upwards of €1,400 (!) to access what again is — and I cannot emphasise this enough — considered a basic medical procedure for women in other countries. Students, young women and most especially those from a working-class background may and often do struggle to raise this amount of cash, meaning the Eighth is something that disproportionally affects and punishes them for their social class.
Also, as mentioned above, women who get abortions tend to take between three and five days off work or study in order to accommodate travel to and from the clinic in the UK, the actual procedure itself and then the post-procedure recovery. That’s up to five days of lost pay for some women if they’re paid hourly and cannot take the time off through sick leave, a case that by and large affects women from lower income backgrounds, students and young women in general.
Furthermore, the stigma around abortion is so strong that many may simply just take the hit pay-wise and not take any days off their vacation or sick leave, fearing this may prompt intrusive questions and so on. And even then, this presumes that when the need for an abortion arises, they’ve still got some left or are allowed a generous amount of them. Even if some women could afford the journey over, the loss of vital income due to the excessive costs of travel may prevent them from seeking to travel and instead opt for those aforementioned abortion pills, which I repeat have in some cases been found to be medically unsafe.
Reason 4: The Eighth makes abortion a decision for the State, not the individual.
Those that know my political leanings — or at least vague political philosophy — will know that I’m a big fan of individual liberties and rights; I’m ‘libertarian-ish’ as one friend put it. The Eighth debate is primarily one concerned with women’s rights, given abortion is an issue associated with women’s health. But, it’s also one that, in my eyes at least, concerns the role of the State in the defence of individual liberty.
Abortion is, has and always will be an incredibly subjective, individual experience. Why then, should the State decide whether or not women can get abortions if it is a matter that affects women individually in different ways, especially given the views of women on the subject of when life begins varies fromindividual to individual?
The Eighth is the very definition of statism, actively curbing individual rights and freedoms through the government imposing pointlessly prohibitive laws that restrict, not facilitate or enhance, individual rights and freedoms.
You may be someone that thinks life begins at conception. But (a) should that belief infringe on those that don’t; and (b) if the issue, like abortion, is one that has always been subjective, shouldn’t the decision to be able to get one be left to individuals to decide rather than the State?
The State should serve to only facilitate and uphold individual liberty — The Eighth is a perfect example of it violating that liberty.
I get that abortion is a difficult issue. Views on when life begins and ends and at what week things can be performed and so on litter the comments sections and opinion pages of various sites across the internet.
The proposal put forward by the Irish government following the long deliberations of the ‘Eighth Committee’ would allow unrestricted access for up to 12 weeks and then conditional access for another 10–12 weeks. This is a fair proposal in my eyes. It may seem like a compromise position and one that some were unsatisfied with, but it nonetheless would allow women in this country to access abortion safely, legally and freely without fear of reprisal.
(Photo by Ruairi Luke McCallan)
If the Eighth Amendment is repealed on May 25th, no one will be forced to get an abortion. If you are pro-life, you will still be able to say ‘no, I’m pro-life and personally don’t agree with the procedure’. The doctor is not going to dismiss that opinion and force you to have one. What is going to happen is this: Women who need or want abortions will be able to get them. Nothing more, nothing less.
This is a matter for individuals, a matter that the State should have no role in stopping, only facilitating. It’s time Ireland trusted women to make their own decisions and granted them bodily autonomy; it’s time to repeal the Eighth Amendment.🔷
(This piece was first published on Medium.)