ALISON O'CONNOR: Dáil debate on repeal of Eighth was balm for the female soul

This was a debate about women’s rights and healthcare and about giving women equal opportunity, writes Alison O’Connor

Just how far have we travelled?

That was the key question as the country refamiliarised itself with the horrors that were imposed on Joanne Hayes and her family after a dead baby was found on a Co Kerry beach in 1984.

Personally, I couldn’t quite believe that I hadn’t read more about this shameful episode in Irish history in the intervening years, not really being old enough to take it in as it happened. I set about immediately rectifying that by reading Nell McCafferty’s book A Woman to Blame. I started on Wednesday morning and kept reading until I was finished that evening. That was no hardship. Nell writes like a dream, but on this occasion, she was writing of details so truly awful that I actually found myself sick to my stomach on occasion.

There are any number of passages explaining the barbarity of what went on during the investigation into the death of Baby John found on a beach near Caherciveen, and the son Joanne Hayes gave birth to on her family farm, but the opening lines sum up so much.

Nell outlined how the Kerry Babies Tribunal met for the first time in June 1985. She writes of the 43 male officials — judges, lawyers, gardaí — involved in the probe of the private life of Joanne Hayes. One of those, a married man, went to bed in a Tralee hotel with a woman who has not his wife.

When he was privately confronted, he at first denied it, but then he crumpled into tears and asked not to be exposed. “My wife… my job… my reputation…” He was assured discretion.

As Nell points out, no such discretion was assured to Joanne Hayes “as a succession of professional men, including this married man, came forward to strip her character”.

Dáil debate on repeal of Eighth was balm for the female soul

Of all that she wrote, the most nauseating (and believe me, there’s strong competition for that prize) was what happened with Joanne Hayes as a witness as her private life was laid out in minute and horrific detail.

“The probing of the woman’s sexual history brought the men to such a fever pitch that she collapsed. She was excused, temporarily, and could be heard retching and sobbing in the hospital. The judge ordered that she be sedated and then brought back to testify. She gave evidence in a daze, her head bobbing off the microphone. The judge ask that her friends keep a suicide watch on her that night.”

I finished the book seething at what had gone on and believing it should be a prescribed secondary school text — yet there is also the consciousness that all of this horror bursting through again this week has the real prospect of retraumatising Joanne Hayes and her family. You would understand perfectly if they never wanted a word uttered about it in public again. It would be a very particular type of person who would not welcome the apology issued by the gardaí this week. But it was on reflection that you despaired on how long it had taken to apologise; that it had taken the results of a DNA test to allow for that apology to take place.

It was an utterly weird, you might say depraved, theory, that took hold with the investigating gardaí, and was actively considered by the judge during the tribunal, that led us to this point.

The threadbare theory was that Joanne Hayes had given birth to twins by two different fathers, who she had sex with within hours of each other, and this allowed for her to be mother to both the baby found on the family farm and Baby John.

This theory of superfecundation was barmy and, very early on, tests indicating blood type proved it simply could not be the case. But even though it was so utterly crazy, in the end only cold, hard science (a version of which was already brought into play three decades ago) was to “prove” her innocence, not her own word or that of her family or, indeed, logic itself.

What went on was medieval, as Nell herself says, but it happened in 1985. The passage of three decades has brought little comfort in terms of moving out of the dark ages. The extraordinarily misogynistic manner in which that tribunal was conducted would not be allowed today, but it was only last year that a young woman was sectioned under the Mental Health Act because she said she was suicidal and wanted to have an abortion.

It is only three years ago that a clinically dead woman was kept on life support as her brain rotted, against the wishes of her family, because she was pregnant. Not long before that, a raped asylum seeker was forced to continue with a pregnancy against her will. It was 2012 when Savita Halappanavar died in a hospital in Galway. We have had Miss X, Miss C, Miss D, not to forget Amanda Mellet.

So, having finished the book, it was with some trepidation on Wednesday evening I sat down to watch our TDs have their first significant Dáil debate on abortion following publication of the report of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

But, in truth, it was a balm to the female soul. Health Minister Simon Harris stood in the Dáil and immediately gave it all a context, from the Magdalene laundries, to the mother and baby homes “or the glimpses of what was an all too acceptable culture exposed by the Kerry babies case. All these are connected by the way we, as a country, have treated women, and particularly the way we have treated pregnant women.”

Dáil debate on repeal of Eighth was balm for the female soul

He brought home the universality of abortion, the friends, neighbours, sisters, cousins, aunts, and wives, the 3,265 “real women” who travelled to the UK in 2016 for abortions. These included 241 from Cork; 99 from Limerick; 49 from Kerry; 56 from Waterford; 130 from Kildare; 1,175 from Dublin.

Up next was Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher, who also spoke very movingly, saying that, as politicians, it was TDs’ duty to address this issue. This was a debate about women’s rights and healthcare, he said, and about giving women an equal opportunity in the Republic.

“As someone who will be 50 years old next Saturday, I do not want to preside over the continuation of the current situation, knowing that next year, the year after, and the year after, thousands of Irish girls and women will board aeroplanes to seek health care in other countries or climb the stairs to their bedroom with an abortion pill because the State has failed them.”

Bravo Billy Kelleher. So we had a minister for health, the main opposition health spokesman, two party leaders (Gerry Adams and Brendan Howlin) one leader in waiting (Mary Lou McDonald), and others, getting to their feet one after another, respectful of each other, calling for repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

It was speaker number 11, Michael Healy Rae TD, who broke the pattern, saying he was not in favour of repeal. He articulated his case well. Even though I disagree strongly with him, it was clear that the anti-abortion side would have been far better served to have had him on the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth rather than senator Ronan Mullen and TDs Mattie McGrath and Peter Fitzpatrick.

Meanwhile, yesterday’s instalment saw the extraordinary surprise of Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin taking to his feet and saying he was in favouring of repealing the Eighth Amendment and free access to abortion up to 12 weeks. This was a brave political move, and not without personal cost. It opens up a fascinating scenario where he is at odds with the majority of his party, yet gave a display of political leadership on the matter that immediately put Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the back foot on the issue.

This debate was only the opener, and there are a long few months ahead of a referendum, but it showed much needed promise. It was a moment to grasp.

This was a debate about women’s rights and healthcare and about giving women an equal opportunity

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