Tomorrow, March 8th is International Women’s Day. I like to do something to mark this day each year, usually something small like going to see a female-led play or film. This year I’m doing something bigger. I’m taking the day off work to join Strike 4 Repeal on O’Connell Bridge to protest the 8th Amendment. I know that I’ve written about the 8th Amendment very recently, but I still have more to say and feel like I will continue to have more to say about until it is removed from the Constitution.
Over the weekend when the news was full of the Tuam babies scandal and the Citizen’s Assembly sat again to hear personal stories from people affected by the 8th Amendment and from advocacy groups and representative organisations. All of the presentations are available on the website, including the Q&A sections which I found really interesting because they allowed us to hear from the citizens in the room. They had a long weekend in the hotel in Malahide with two full days of presentations and I am grateful to those citizens who are giving up their time to take part in the Assembly. Even though it seems unnecessary because it’s blindingly obvious to me that we need to hold a referendum on the 8th Amendment. (Minister for Health Simon Harris agrees with me, as he told the World Congress Women’s Mental Health on Monday.) Maybe the Citizens’ Assembly is more suitable to the other, massive and difficult subjects they also have to discuss, such as the problems facing an ageing population and climate change. Those topics do not have the easy, obvious solution.
Legislating for abortion in Ireland will not be easy but we know that what we have now isn’t working. It doesn’t stop Irish women from having abortions, it just makes it more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous for them to do so. I want to see the repeal of the 8th Amendment and the introduction of safe, legal abortion in Ireland. I am pro-abortion. I am happy to live at a time when medicine and science have come up with a way to safely end unwanted pregnancies. There always is and always been a need for abortions by women experiencing unwanted, unexpected, impossible pregnancies. Safe, legal abortion means those women don’t have to throw themselves down the stairs or get into a hot bath with a bottle of gin and “hope for the best”. In this outdated scenario, the “best” is a miscarriage that doesn’t kill them.
But while I am unashamedly pro-abortion, I am also pro-choice. I don’t think abortion is the only solution for every unexpected, “inconvenient” pregnancy. Nobody should be forced to have an abortion. I support women who know that they cannot continue with a pregnancy and I also support women who choose to delay cancer treatment so they can continue their pregnancy, or women who know their child cannot survive outside the womb but want to carry that baby to term so they might get to hold him or her, even for a short time. I support women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and surprisingly delighted. I support women who are pregnant as a result of rape and want to have the baby because they see it as a way for something good to come out of a terrible experience. I think our government and our society should support and help those women. But we also have a duty of care to women who don’t want to have a baby. No women should be forced to remain pregnant when she doesn’t want to be. I agree with Amnesty and the United Nations that access to abortion is a human right. I am embarrassed by my country which does not allow it.
To me, abortion is a kindness. Women who have had abortions often describe feeling extremely grateful towards the medical professionals who helped them out, as Lindy’s West’s thank-you letter to an abortion doctor demonstrates. For Irish women, this gratitude is directed as those who looked after them when their own country turned their back. Abortion Support Network, who support women traveling from Ireland to the UK to access abortions are a magnificent organisation. It’s the most grassroots charity you could possibly support because the main thing they do is give money to women who need it. They also offer a confidential helpline, a lift to and from the clinic, sometimes a bed for the night. Such kindness and such generosity. I sometimes feel teary-eyed with gratitude when I think about how the Marie Stopes clinics in the UK offer discounted rates for Irish women, who have the extra cost of travel. I am grateful to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service who last year set up a helpline for Irish women who take abortion pills they got through the post and might need to ask someone what’s normal and to be expected, and what’s dangerous and requiring medical attention. This is important because going to the doctor is a dangerous thing to do in a country where taking these pills is illegal and could led to a 14 year prison sentence. You can see why they might need some non-judgmental medical help in what could be a life and death situation. And suddenly it feels like Ireland really isn’t all that far away from women throwing themselves down the stairs.
Abortion will not be the right choice for everyone but it’s a choice that everyone should have the right to make. It would be wonderful to live in a world where abortion wasn’t necessary, a world where every conception resulted in a healthy, happy child born to parents who had the emotional and financial capacity to love and care for them. A world where every child was wanted and cherished. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world with rape and domestic abuse, where contraception is never 100% reliable and where people make mistakes. We live in an imperfect, human world where abortion is necessary and should be free, safe and legal.
Making abortion legal and freely available does not increase the rate of abortions just as making abortion illegal does not stop people from getting abortions. There are better ways to do that. Improving sex education in schools and making contraception more available would probably help. So would building a society that values young women for more than just their sexuality; a society that offers more support to mothers, particularly single parents and parents of children with disabilities.
There are lots of improvements that could be made to Irish society. Repealing the 8th Amendments is one of these improvements. I’ll be on O’Connell Bridge at 12.30 tomorrow calling for it’s repeal.
A society should also be able to house it’s citizens, and the government should be doing more to end the housing crisis so that Irish children don’t have to grow up in hotels and everyone has access to somewhere safe and warm to sleep. In the meantime, to help the homeless this IWD, I will be donating period paraphernalia to the Homeless Period. They have top-off points around Dublin, in DIT student unions, Tropical Popical on South William Street and the Market Pharmacy in Smithfield.