On May 25th, 2018, Ireland will have the chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment of its constitution in a referendum. This amendment was adopted in 1983 and it asserted that a fetus had the same rights as the woman who carried it. It’s no surprise that this law came into existance, since Ireland was still pretty synonymous with the Catholic faith when the Amendment was passed and while it allowed for pregnancy termination if the life of the mother was shown to be at risk, it made proving that exception more difficult. It also didn’t allow for the mental health of the mother – only the physical. The Eighth strengthened penalties for seeking an abortion both in Ireland and abroad and it ensured that community groups and organizations could not legally help women who wished to explore those options. It took decades of hard work to rectify the latter circumstances but abortion in Ireland was and is still illegal.
This is not to say that women (and girls) don’t get abortions. Recent statistics estimate that more than 150,000 Irish women have had abortions since the eighties. About a dozen have them every day – either by traveling to the U.K. where abortion is legal, by using the outlawed Plan B pill, or getting an illegal (and sometimes unsafe) abortion in Ireland itself. These women risk a prison sentence of up to fourteen years if they are caught having an abortion on the island, but they do it anyway and that is really the only point that should matter in the upcoming referendum on whether the Eighth should be repealed or not.
It isn’t the only point of consideration though. Abortion is still a fiery-hot button issue all over the world, not just in Ireland. For many it’s a religious issue or what they see as a moral one. In these cases, arguing the concept of when life begins, advocating for exceptions to laws, or making abortion a healthcare or equal rights issue never really changes anyone’s mind. It’s a problem conversation that will never be solved completely.
Here’s the thing though – abortion exists whether you like it or not, approve of it or not, would have one yourself or not, or would encourage someone else to have one or not. It will continue to exist regardless of any law or referendum and because it will, emotional and religious debates are rather moot. All that remains to be discussed is health and safety.
With that in mind, let’s be clear about what a No vote says. It says you value punishment and shame over safety and that you think your morals are superior and more important than someone else’s life. It says that you think women can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to make their own decisions. It says a woman who gets pregnant but doesn’t want a child should either be forced to live with the consequences of “her” actions or that she should potentially die or be locked up. It means you’d rather send your sister, daughter, friend, stranger, or lover abroad to deal with this alone than face it head on and offer her comfort and safety. It means that you’re okay with forcing women to do something against their will. This is what your no vote really means, whether you want to dress it up in righteousness and morality or not.
A Yes vote doesn’t mean you would have an abortion. It doesn’t mean that you would support others you know having one either. It doesn’t force an abortion on a woman who doesn’t want one and it won’t make the very personal decision on whether or not to have one any easier on anyone. However, a Yes vote does say that women you may or may not ever meet, love, or know anything about deserve to live, whether they decide to have children or not. It says Ireland bravely confronts its own issues, instead of shunting them off on somewhere else to pretend that they don’t exist. It says that you will not assume that you know better or are better than others. It says “Thou Shalt Not Judge“. A Yes vote ensures that women can finally make their own decisions, despite years of inequality and dismissal and that the island is a safe space for all.
Ireland’s Proclamation guarantees religious and civil liberties to all men and women equally and much like the golden ideals of many other countries, that equality has yet to become a reality. The island has made several significant steps toward that goal in recent years and can make another in a matter of days. Ireland was the first country in the world to declare marriage equality by popular vote and it was a shockingly progressive decision in a country that is still known for its patriarchal and religious roots. Three years and three days after that momentous decision was made, Ireland will have another chance to champion equal rights and individual liberty for all. I just hope it does.
Repeal the Eighth.