Sunday 20 January 2019

'For me, it was about murdering a foetus - now I've gone full circle'

The Dail's sorority of 1982 recall the debate on the Eighth and look forward to May's vote, writes Maeve Sheehan

Fine Gael women TDs elected in 1982, back row: Myra Barry, Monica Barnes, Nuala Fennell, Avril Doyle and Mary Flaherty, front row: Nora Owen, Alice Glenn, Gemma Hussey and Madeleine Taylor-Quinn
Fine Gael women TDs elected in 1982, back row: Myra Barry, Monica Barnes, Nuala Fennell, Avril Doyle and Mary Flaherty, front row: Nora Owen, Alice Glenn, Gemma Hussey and Madeleine Taylor-Quinn
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Thirty-five years ago, 14 women gathered together on the plinth of Leinster House to celebrate their election as TDs in a political world dominated by men. They arrived there via different paths: some from the women's movement, some were from political families, some were activists.

Soon after the main picture above was taken, in November 1982, they were plunged into one of the most divisive political campaigns in modern times about one of the most enduring social issues.

It was a time of economic hardship, political instability and social conservatism. According to Monica Barnes, a Fine Gael backbencher at the time, the 1970s brought EU membership, equality legislation and a thriving women's movement, but ended with renewed religious fervour inspired by the Pope's visit. "A huge number of right-wing Catholics felt that we were all going to hell in a wheelbarrow," she says.

The Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) wanted to protect Ireland from abortion by banning it in the Constitution. The influential group secured promises from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to hold a referendum. Fianna Fail devised the wording in its brief stint in government in 1982. Garret FitzGerald had to carry it through when he became Taoiseach in November of that year.

Fianna Fail's wording for the referendum - giving an equal right to life to the mother and the unborn - raised serious misgivings among doctors and lawyers. Nevertheless, it was put to the vote in Leinster House. Many in Fine Gael abstained and Labour voted against, but the wording passed. It was put to the people in September 1983, who voted by 67pc to insert the Eight Amendment into the Constitution.

As the current government asks Irish citizens to undo that decision, we asked the women of the 24th Dail for their recollections of a polarised campaign more than three decades on. Three of the 14 women TDs have since died - Alice Glenn, the Fine Gael social conservative; Nuala Fennell, an equally staunch Fine Gael feminist; and Labour's Eileen Desmond. Two other TDs at that time, Fine Gael's Myra Barry, and Eileen Lemass, Fianna Fail, were not in a position to contribute to the article.

Eight of the nine we spoke to support repeal. One is undecided. Most depict an Ireland that, in the words of Nora Owen, was in many ways, a "foreign country".

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Fianna Fail

"I was very vocal on contraception, I was very vocal on any discussion we had on divorce, which wasn't an awful lot, but I always felt people should be entitled to get a divorce and a second chance," says Geoghegan-Quinn, who became a TD in 1975.

"But for some reason, any time abortion came up, it was a really difficult issue for me. Now I don't know why that was, because I didn't know anybody who had to go to England for an abortion, although I'm sure I knew people that did but I didn't know about it.

"For me, it was about murdering a foetus, which to me was a baby at that time.

"Now I've gone full circle. I think as you grow up, and you mature, and you become a mother, and all those things happen to you, you come across circumstances in life and get to know people and meet people who have had really difficult pregnancies, or fatal foetal abnormalities, and had to go through the full nine-month term and all of that. It changes your thinking. It actually stuns you in a way, and makes you think a lot more deeply than probably I did in 1983.

"I realised it is not a simple matter of yes or no. You have to say to yourself, if I was in that situation, what would I do?

"I didn't have any daughters, but I had lots of friends who had daughters and they would always be concerned that a daughter might get pregnant or be raped, things that would happen to girls that don't happen to boys.

"I think we used to often have that conversation: what would you do in a situation like that? And we always maintained that nobody could tell you what you would do until it knocks on your door."

"Certainly, as soon as I get the opportunity to vote, I will be voting yes."

Mary Harney, Fianna Fail

As a young TD in Fianna Fail, Harney was the first member of the parliamentary party to break ranks with Charlie Haughey on what was then known as the 'anti-abortion' amendment. What was the use of enshrining pro-life sentiments in the Constitution or in the statute books, she asked, when "Irish girls travel daily for an abortion" and the enormous moral and social problems are not tackled?

"It was not a popular thing to express reservations, that's for sure. There was just one way. Anyone that had any different view wasn't considered a reasonable citizen," she says now.

"I don't subscribe to the view that there are people who are pro-life and people who are not pro-life. I would regard myself as very pro-life.

"I voted against the insertion into the Constitution in 1983 and I will be voting for its removal on this occasion. I still regard myself as pro-life. I don't think that's inconsistent.

"In the intervening years, I saw the consequences of writing things into the Constitution, and the kind of straitjacket effect on obstetricians, of just being able to read situations as they arise.

"I feel that the vast majority of people are pro-life. It is not a question of not being pro-life if you want to get this out of the Constitution and to replace it with appropriate legislation."

She hopes the debate will be calmer and more respectful than in 1983, when it was "unsavoury, emotional and sometimes very irrational".

Mary O'Rourke, Fianna Fail

O'Rourke says she thought a lot before voting for the Eight Amendment as a "rookie" TD in 1983

"It was a personal vote. I remember thinking a lot about this and it seemed to me a good idea and I went along with it. I remember voting for it. I remember the pencil in my hand in the little voting booth and I remember voting for it," she says.

"You see, me and Enda [her late husband] were always trying for a baby. It was never a case of we'd better watch it, we don't want to get pregnant again. We were always trying for a baby."

Now she is thinking carefully again, having followed the Oireachtas hearings and sought out policy papers, speeches and legislation. "I want to make up my mind, full of knowledge," she adds.

O'Rourke has concerns, such as unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks, but her views have changed over the years. "I look back on my public life, all the women I met who were on their way to London. I was going back in my mind and I must have met seven or eight who came to my clinic who were going to go to London to have an abortion," she says. At the time, she says, she would have told them: "If that's the way you feel, that's you and your partner's business, you know, but I just said think of the baby.

"But life has changed. It has changed me. I realise that in so many things now nothing is black and white any more. There is grey and in-between, and I find myself in that land now, at the moment. I hope having read all the material and having studied it, the way will be clearer for me.

"I know from life now that there is no longer any black and white solution to anything, least of all to the whole question of abortion. I think it is a separate thing for people to make up their minds on, but it isn't black and white."

Monica Barnes, Fine Gael

Barnes, a feminist activist since the 1970s, was a strident campaigner against the Eight Amendment in 1983. She cheerily admits that Fine Gael's old guard regarded her as "a pain in the arse".

Like many of her Fine Gael colleagues, she objected to the wording of the referendum because of what she saw as the inherent dangers in providing equal weight to the mother and the unborn. She was also pro-choice.

"I remember saying to Gemma [Hussey] that I did not get elected to the Dail after all these years of working for women to sell them out. For me, I had to stand up for women, and for the health and the future of women. That's where I was in 1983," she says.

Barnes attracted more abuse than most because of her high-profile stance. On one occasion, a pro-life group turned up at Leinster House from her Dun Laoghaire constituency and shouted at her. She was ushered to the members bar and the group steered upstairs. They leant over the bannister and spat at her.

On another occasion, she heard a clicking noise in her briefcase coming home one evening and suspected it was a bomb. "We put the briefcase out in the middle of the garden and put an extension onto the rake and we opened the lid very gingerly. You remember those Dictaphone machines that went tick, tick, tick when they ran out? Thank God, that's what it was," she says. "But the threat against you was such that myself and my children did actually believe it might be a bomb."

The passing years have only entrenched her position. "What had been feared then, by the legal and medical profession who were confined by this [amendment], had transpired. She says she is "delighted" to right what she believes was a wrong by voting for repeal.

Gemma Hussey, Fine Gael

Hussey was the only female around Garret FitzGerald's cabinet table in 1983. "Nobody was talking about bringing in abortion into Ireland. It was a completely foreign thing. But this Pro-Life Amendment Campaign crowd started to say that if we didn't put something in the Constitution, we would have free abortion," she recalls. Hussey was education minister and staunchly opposed to the referendum.

"It was a time of Charlie versus Garret - Garret the good and Charlie the bad, and all that," she says.

When FitzGerald replaced Haughey as Taoiseach in 1982, he effectively inherited Fianna Fail's referendum wording. "Garret didn't see anything particularly wrong with the wording on initially looking at it. But the attorney general, the late Peter Sutherland - who by the way was a staunch Catholic conservative - saw that the amendment was dangerous, that it was ambivalent, that it could both allow abortion and stop abortion. He felt that it was most unsafe and unwise.

"Of the people in the cabinet, myself and Alan Dukes were particularly delighted because we were absolutely against the amendment," she says.

"Because the party was so badly split, like Fianna Fail is today, it was decided to give the party a free vote."

Hussey went further and campaigned against the amendment.

Some of her party colleagues called for her resignation. "I remember one of the prominent members of the party stood up at a meeting and said that if myself and Alan Dukes were not going to support the referendum, we should resign from cabinet," she adds.

The atmosphere was poisonous. Someone sponsored 10,000 anonymous leaflets denouncing her for voting against life. Hussey says her position has never wavered. "As it turned out, all the years since 1983, there have been terrible cases which have been as a result of doctors not knowing what they can do because of the amendment. And so, we have a chaotic situation where women are either taking pills in secret in their homes without medical supervision or travelling to England on their own," she says. "So that's why I am so glad to get the opportunity to vote, to put the thing right."

Madeleine Taylor- Quinn, Fine Gael

Taylor-Quinn was pregnant when the referendum on the Eight Amendment kicked off in 1983. She spent her pregnancy averting her gaze from images of bloody foetuses and seeing off pro-life campaigners. Curates, parish priests and monsignors trooped to her home in the rural Clare constituency. She had a "right good razzmatazz" with her local bishop over a priest who gave out "disinformation" from the pulpit.

"It was particularly difficult because I was pregnant. I miscarried the twin of my first child, at 11 or 12 weeks, at that time. It just happened. But did I tell anyone about that at the time? No, I didn't," she says.

"I remember when I was seven months pregnant one day being literally jammed with my back to the wall in the corridor of Leinster House with three [pro-life campaigners] around me, harassing me. I was totally fed up of them. I said: 'Look, you're such hypocrites. Here you are, you are actually harassing and distressing me and I'm carrying a child. You don't really give two hoots about the child that's being carried. All you care about is conveying your viewpoint'. I said: 'Just stay away from me, don't come near me any more'. That was it."

Taylor-Quinn voted for the Eight Amendment because at the time, she says, "the safety of the mother really was an issue". Now, she is in favour of repealing it.

She believes now - as she believed then - that the life of a mother should not be put at risk; a girl pregnant as a result of rape should not be forced to carry a baby; and women should not be forced to go through with pregnancies in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. However, she says she doesn't believe in "free-for-all" abortion.

"Back in 1983, quite a number of my male colleagues would have said to me: 'We shouldn't have any say in this, really it should be left to the women.' And you know what, at the end of the day, women are nurturers by nature, and women don't lightly take decisions of that nature," she says. "I think we should have a respect and a trust in the decisions that women take about their individual situations."

Nora Owen, Fine Gael

"It has taken 35 years to bring it about, but I hope that it [the Eight Amendment] is taken out of the Constitution and that the responsibility comes back onto the people who stand for election," says Owen. She says Ireland was a "foreign country" 35 years ago when it came to sex and personal freedoms.

"We didn't talk about sex," she adds, yet even in 1983, thousands of women were travelling to the UK for abortions.

"I would have been unhappy about bringing abortion into Ireland. But I was also aware of the numbers of women who had to make that lonely journey.

"We weren't using terms like pro-choice then, but I think I probably was. I felt we really should recognise the horror of what was happening to people."

And now? "It is clearer in my head that there are a wide range of reasons that women find themselves in a predicament that they can't cope in a pregnancy," she says.

"I think my attitude now would be give people a certain amount of responsibility for their own decision," she says. "I was worried when I heard the 12 weeks but now that it is kind of wrapped around proper medical consideration and women being sent back to think about it for another 48 or 72 hours, that's important.

"You need to know what's going to happen when you lose a pregnancy. In my own life, I had one miscarriage and it is not pleasant. I was very early on, it was about six weeks. But I know I woke up in the middle of the night getting what I thought were cramps and I realised I was miscarrying. It is not pleasant."

She thinks now of women who get the abortion pill by post, who "take it in their home, without maybe telling their partners or their sisters or anybody. It hasn't maybe happened that we know of that somebody has bled to death but somebody will."

Mary Flaherty, Fine Gael

At a Fine Gael meeting on the anti-abortion referendum in 1983, a rural conservative TD said to a pregnant Flaherty that pregnant women were half mad. In a social climate like that, there was no room to consider the complexities of the abortion issue,says Flaherty, who was a Fine Gael TD for 16 years.

Looking back now, she says she finds "extraordinary" the commitment given by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to having a referendum in the first place.

"That was from the beginning, I felt, an error. The pro-life movement was so strong at the time, and if you didn't say yes to them you were effectively pro-abortion, which was unthinkable for any mainstream politician back then," she says.

"I understand and would identify with both those who see the complexity of it [abortion], that it is two lives you are battling with, and two lives you would always want to protect, but one is totally dependent on the other, and there is only so far you can go with that. It will always remain a huge dilemma.

"What I find completely different now is that at least there is space to talk about the complexities of this issue.

"I will be supporting the removal of the Eight Amendment. There was no need for it in Irish society at the time. There was nobody pushing for abortion at the time. It was totally unnecessary."

Avril Doyle, Fine Gael

As with other Fine Gael TDs, Doyle abstained from the vote on the wording of the referendum in the Dail in 1983.

Now retired from politics, she declined to give a lengthy interview but did confirm that she would be voting for repeal.

"I leave it to this good generation to continue this debate in a respectful way, but I will be supporting repeal," she said.

Sunday Independent

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