On the day of the referendum to legalise same sex marriage, I stood at the polling booth with tears in my eyes, writes Louise O’Neill.
I felt as if I was voting for something that would truly matter, that would change Ireland for the better. And now, three years later, we are facing into another referendum.
Another referendum that has been deemed ‘controversial’ and generating ‘debate’, as if a human rights violations (as the United Nations has deemed Irish abortion laws to be) are something that should be debated. How else could you describe the Eighth Amendment but a violation? Its very existence in our constitution is putting every pregnant woman at risk, whether psychologically, as in the case of women who have given the devastating news that their baby has a fatal foetal abnormality and they are forced abroad when at their most vulnerable, or physically, sd when Savita Halappanavar died crying out for an abortion that would have saved her life.
Pro-lifers (or anti-choice, as I prefer to call them. How can you call yourself pro-life when people have literally died because of what you are espousing) will, of course, claim that Ireland is one of the safest countries for mothers in the world; ignoring what thousands of doctors and medical experts say to the contrary. How they, like Dr Peter Boylan, the Chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, have declared the Eighth Amendment unworkable due to its “inherently contradictory and hypocritical nature”.
While I know there are many decent people who are planning to vote no, they have been badly let down by the anti-choice campaign, much of which has been characterised by unconscionable misinformation. The callous exploitation of people with disabilities to frighten undecided voters, despite pleas from parents of children with disabilities to refrain from doing so. The alleged claims on the doorsteps that rape victims can already avail of abortion in Ireland, if so desired, which is incorrect. The posters with rosy-cheeked babies, and slogans claiming we are voting on abortion up to six months. That is incorrect. Over 90% of abortions occur before 12 weeks. Late term abortions are extremely rare and usually only occur when something has gone terribly wrong and the mother’s life is in danger. (As would have been the case with Halappanavar, if she had been lucky enough to give birth in a country that didn’t equate the life of a foetus as valuable as that of an adult woman.)
The 12 week restriction wasn’t proposed by politicians, but by men and women like you and me in the Citizen’s Assembly; men and women who listened to all the evidence, and whom, when presented with the facts rather than hysteria, overwhelmingly came to the same decision. They chose compassion, realising that this time period would, amongst other things, give victims of rape and incest enough time to access the appropriate care they need. There seems to be a lack of understanding around this, and even as to what we will actually be voting on. If we vote yes to repeal the Eighth Amendment on May 25th, we will be removing the absolute ban on abortion in our constitution. This will not change the laws immediately but it will give the government the ability to legislate for abortion care moving forward.
If you’re reading this and you have been confused by the noise surrounding the referendum, and are now uncertain if you are even going to vote at all – I would like to ask you a few questions.
Are you happy with the status quo as it stands? Are you content to live in a country that forces twelve women a day on to a flight or a ferry, desperate, alone, and frightened? Do you think it’s acceptable that the only women who can travel are those who can afford to, while those without the funds are left behind, trapped? Do you worry about the three women a day who take abortion pills without medical supervision? Do you think that it’s fair that those women should be deemed criminals? What would you say if I told you that there was evidence that women in Ireland were using coat hangers and drinking bleach to induce miscarriages?
And what would you do if it was your daughter or your sister or your wife or your girlfriend or your friend? What would you say if she came to you and she said she was too young to become a mother, for she was only a child herself? Or that she had too many kids and not enough money to support them all? Or she had a chronic health issue that a pregnancy would exasperate, perhaps even causing death? Would you turn away from her in disgust? Would you call her a ‘baby-killer’ while she stood in front of you, begging you for your help? What would you do?
And when you’re given that ballot paper, maybe you might think of the twelve women who will be making the lonely journey to England that day. Maybe you will think of Savita. The thirteen year rape victim. The twenty-six year old mother, who died after being forbidden to take anti-cancer medication when she was pregnant, leaving three children behind. The suicidal young woman going on hunger strike. The clinically dead woman being kept alive on a life support machine. Think of them, and then think of all the women whose names we will never know.
Remember that with that seemingly innocuous ballot paper that you hold in your hands, you also hold the power to save people’s lives.
And again, I ask you – what would you do?
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