On Friday 25 May, Ireland will hold a historic referendum to relax their strict anti-abortion laws. The eighth amendment in the constitution currently means women are forced to travel to other countries to access safe and legal abortion, or to take abortion pills bought online. The repeal movement has spread to the UK and has now reached Nottingham, where East Midlands Together for Yes are trying to encourage Irish citizens to get registered and travel home to vote. Here, Caroline Barry explains why she’ll be making the journey herself…
I grew up in a small, rural, Irish town; like most others, in the shadow of the church. I went to catholic school, had mass on Sundays and I was in the choir for years. None of which felt odd until I moved away to Limerick to attend art college.
It was hard not to feel the presence of the church in Limerick, as our art college was based on the site of a Magdalene laundry; places where women were once imprisoned after having babies out of marriage, found all over the country. Surrounded by the walls of the art college – which still had a church on site – I started to realise that while the laundries are no longer functional prison systems, women who’ve had abortions are still treated with disrespect.
In 1983, a law was passed that makes the life of a foetus equal to that of the mother, and it’s this law that makes abortion illegal, but doesn’t necessarily prevent it from happening. Nine women a day make the journey to the UK to access abortion services, and there are also those who choose to take abortion pills bought online.
On Friday 25 May, Irish people have a chance to change the law, meaning safe access to abortion and aftercare. It’s badly needed in a country where women travel home often before they are physically ready to travel; bleeding, ill and sometimes alone. I’ve made “the journey” myself.
My story isn’t unlike others. One in twenty women in Ireland have an abortion story. Not to mention the partners, family members and friends who have known someone who has also made “the journey.” My story was simple. A long-term partner, an accidental condom break, and panic. I was over in the UK before I even realised what was happening, and I travelled back bleeding the same day. No counselling was offered because it wasn’t available, so life went back to same as it ever was, and to this day I have no regrets about the choice I made. However, for years, I lived with the fear of people finding out. The shame is what keeps most people quiet, and nothing filled with me with fear like the thought of writing this article.
I live between West Cork and Nottingham, with belongings and a life in both places. When the vote was announced for this year, I knew I would go home to vote. It was then that me and other Irish people in Nottingham decided to do what we could to help campaign for the right to abortion in Ireland. We set up the East Midlands Together for Yes group which focuses on encouraging Irish people to get registered, get home, and get voting.
Our first event took place last week in Nottingham University; a discussion on what the eighth amendment is and what we can do to help change it. We were joined by Dr Ruth Fletcher, Senior Lecturer of Medical Law at Queen Mary’s University, and Liadan O' Connor from the London Irish Abortion rights campaign who gave a great talk on how to get involved.
Ruth Fletcher pointed out the importance of the vote: “The referendum is really important. It’s the first time in 35 years that we have had an opportunity to liberalise abortion law. We had a referendum in the past but they tried to restrict it even further. It's really significant because it’s been a long campaign of 35 years to get us to this point, and we have a situation where women’s health and lives are not being taken seriously: women who may have cardiac conditions; women who are living with pregnancy and have fatal anomalies; women experiencing violence or are pregnant as a result of violence. In all these cases, women are being asked to bear pregnancies until birth unless they are able to travel. A ‘yes’ vote for the referendum will mean a transformation of the legal system so that women can access abortion at home. So they are told by the basic law of the state that their lives matter.”
Ruth also outlined one part of the law that means even women with pregnancies that are not viable, or those with fatal foetal anomalies, are also forced to travel. Every reason for “the journey” is unique and complex and, in some cases, the lack of care in our hospitals for pregnant women needing abortions is fatal. In 2012, Savita Halappanvar died of septic miscarriage. Savita’s death could have been avoided if the eighth amendment did not exist. It would have meant doctors could have intervened and saved her life. She needed a safe abortion to save her life but under the eighth amendment, doctors couldn’t intervene, and she died.
The campaigning has begun. Volunteers are canvassing, writing letters, flyers and posters, and leaflets are out in force throughout the country. When I went home two weeks ago, I was shocked at the misinformation printed on the posters for the “No” campaigners: “Abortion available up to six months” and “One in six pregnancies in the UK ends in abortion”.
No one wants to take away anyone’s right to canvas or vote, but it should be done with the correct information and without shock tactics. It’s hard to stem the flow of misinformation. Which in turn could cost us the freedom of choice for Irish people already affected by the eighth amendment, and the freedom of those who will be.
Follow Caroline Barry on Twitter @mizzpennydreadf where she’ll be live tweeting her journey home to vote from Thursday 24 - Saturday 25 May.