On May 25th 2018, Ireland will vote on whether or not to repeal the 8th amendment to the Constitution, which gives an equal right to life to both the mother and the unborn. Like the Brexit referendum in the UK and the last US Presidential election, this is a vote that goes deep to the heart of a country. But, while it is true that the Irish vote has split the population along harsh lines of conservative populism and a more optimistic progressiveness, this is a very different fight.
In Britain and America, the results of those two votes could be described as reflecting a nostalgic wish for a rosy past that never existed, pushed by elites. In Ireland, the conservatives do have a rosy tinted view of the past, but they are remembering something that happened. They are seeking a return to a grey theocracy where women are demonised and moral transgressions are punished in dark and sinister ways. This is an Ireland that had Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Child homes, where being different was viewed with suspicion, where judgement was everywhere.
I moved to Ireland in the middle of the 1980s, a couple of years after the 8th amendment entered the constitution. Living in the rural north-west was a huge culture shock after a childhood spent in a leafy London suburb. I learned quickly that, as the Protestant English girl, my morals were immediately viewed as slightly dodgy. I was seen as a bad influence on school friends. I was asked if I had prayers in my religion.
But this post isn’t about that, I’m just giving a bit of context. I was in my teens when we moved. Old enough to be talking about stuff and understanding the subtext in overheard conversations. After leaving home, the 8th amendment was never far away. As my friends and I got used to young adulthood, trying to find a mate, making the occasional mistake, it hung over all our lives like a black cloud. It meant that every time a period was late there would be late night conversations about money, because having all the options to make a decision, even before one needed to be made involved working out how to leave the country if needs be.
I mentioned that earlier bit of context because being the English girl lead to several conversations that have been rolling around in my head since this referendum was called. I was assumed to be non judgemental and more open minded so sometimes people came to me for help. I was never a font of all knowledge but I always tried to be a sympathetic ear although I didn’t always have an answer. That cultural gap that I had felt so keenly meant that I was probably privy to more people’s decision processes in stressful circumstances than I would have been under normal circumstances. I’m not virtue signalling in any way here, I’m just giving context.
I remember the knock on my door when a casual friend came to ask if any of the herbs I grew on my windowsill could get rid of a baby. I remember the discussions of which spirit would be best to drink and how hot the bath should be to bring on a late period (even though the pregnancy test had already shown positive). I remember calculating the costs to Liverpool for a friend of a friend who needed to travel. I remember sitting with male friends whose partners had gone to England without telling them. These were not unique conversations by any means, in fact they were pretty ordinary in their way.
We weren’t a wild crowd, not particularly hedonistic, all just wanted to find out where the hell we were headed and preferably with who. This was in the early 90s when the availability or not of contraception was very much in the news. I remember asking my GP if I could go on the pill. I told him it was because my periods were heavy and painful. He smirked as he handed me the prescription. Back then condoms could still only be bought from the chemist. The chemist back home in the northwest wanted my parent’s permission. I was 22. It wasn’t surprising when people got caught. Hell, some of my friends practised the withdrawal method. Once again, this was the 1990s, not the social upheaval of the 60s or the permissive society of the 70s. This was post AIDs. We knew the facts of life and we were careful, even when it was excruciatingly embarrassing to get the means to be so.
But sometimes things went wrong and someone would get caught. I’m talking about a wide extended group of friends here, friends of friends, people we knew. In those circumstances abortion was always on the table. It has always been a decision that needed to be made, an option that had to be ruled out or chosen. Adoption is always mooted as an alternative to abortion. But adoption in Ireland carries a lot of stigma to the extent that domestic adoption in the country exists mainly between close family and most couples wishing to adopt do so from abroad but that’s a whole other matter. Choosing to have the baby, especially if the father was not going to be in the picture was also a difficult choice. Despite what one might have heard recently from the No lobby in the current referendum campaign, single mothers have not, as a rule, been particularly cherished in Ireland. When it came to making a decision about whether or not to have an unplanned baby, abortion was only one difficult option to choose. Over the years I’ve had friends who’ve thought they were pregnant and those who were, I’ve had friends who kept the baby and those who didn’t. I’ve had friends who adopted and those who were adopted. I’ve had friends who’ve wanted a baby and those who didn’t. Just like anyone else would. The 8th amendment, I would pretty confidently say, did not really affect any of these decisions, not really. What it did do was complicate.
The 8th amendment politicised me. In 1992 I read about the 14-year-old girl who had been raped and wanted an abortion but was being stopped from travelling for one by the Attorney General. The X case marches in February and March 1992 were the first political marches I ever went on. 20 years later I stood outside the Dail trying not to get candle grease on my gloves at a vigil for Savita Halappanavar who had died in a hospital in Galway not long before. In the intervening years, there were many rallies, vigils and marches when a case came along which denied logic and humanity. These two demonstrations frame a period during which I met my husband, got married, tried for a family, tried to adopt. Anything that touches the consecrated unit of family in Ireland is problematic. Even the definition of family in the constitution (in the clause right after the one into which 8th amendment was inserted) does not recognise the messiness of human life with its insistence that this fundamental unit must be based upon marriage to be recognised and that the mother alone is named as having duties in the home.
Because this vote is about something much bigger than a line in the constitution. It’s about the division between the simple, pure but ultimately unrealistic view of life reflected by the No campaign and the current Irish constitution and the reality as it always has been and always will be – messy, unpredictable, joyous and tragic as it is. The 8th has never been fit for purpose but as long as it continues to exist, a shining trophy of conservatism, there is always an argument that this mythical Ireland, where no one has sex outside marriage and families are always solid and secure, is a viable option. So that monolithic view needs to go. Maybe then we can start caring for the fallible, the vulnerable and the unlucky. Maybe then we can start building an inclusive, caring future that accepts the complexities of life.