Saturday 21 September 2019

Now finally we can end the chill of the Eighth

The resounding repeal this weekend marks a momentous point in our nation's history, writes Ivana Bacik

LONG-TIME CAMPAIGNER: Ivana Bacik in the upper yard of Dublin Castle where activists met to mark the referendum result. Photo: Gerry Mooney
LONG-TIME CAMPAIGNER: Ivana Bacik in the upper yard of Dublin Castle where activists met to mark the referendum result. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Ivana Bacik

We have made history this weekend. I am overwhelmed at the way in which Ireland has spoken. The resounding repeal of the Eighth Amendment marks a historic point in our nation's history - the moment at which we have finally faced up to our social responsibility, to the reality of women's lives and our reproductive healthcare needs. It has been a long time coming. It has taken us 35 years.

I was too young to vote in 1983, but I have lived all of my adult life under the chill of the Eighth Amendment. I now have two young daughters growing up under the same chill. One of the key motivations for me in continuing to campaign for repeal over recent years was that I did not want my daughters' generation to reach adulthood facing the same restrictions on their reproductive health care that so many of us have faced for so long.

Nearly 30 years ago, I felt the chill of the Eighth Amendment personally as Trinity College Dublin students' union president, when I and my fellow student officers were taken to court by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) in 1989, and threatened with prison - just because we were giving the phone numbers of clinics in Britain to women with crisis pregnancies.

I will never forget the desperation in the voices of the women who phoned us, and in the faces of those women who called to our union office in Trinity seeking that information.

In their crisis pregnancies, the State had compounded their crisis by denying them not only access to abortion, but also access to information - because SPUC had closed down women's counselling centres in a series of legal cases taken under the Eighth Amendment.

Subsequently, I worked in London for some years with the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group as a volunteer providing support and accommodation to Irish women who had travelled for abortions, and again met many women in difficult personal circumstances - women whose crisis pregnancy was compounded by having to travel.

And in the meantime we voted in 1992 to amend the Eighth Amendment to recognise women's freedom both to receive information on abortion, and to travel abroad to access abortion - a strange legal hypocrisy, denying women the right to the healthcare we need here at home, yet tacitly acknowledging that we would need it somewhere else.

Over the decades since then, women have continued to travel to England for abortions; nine or 10 women every day.

How Did Your Constituency Vote?

Final Results Constituencies declared: 40/40

Map Key

Yes 55% 50% 55% No

We know that 170,000 women have made the journey since the Eighth Amendment was passed.

In 2016 alone, 3,265 women gave Irish addresses at English clinics and hospitals - 66 of those were under 18. In addition, more than 1,000 women a year are importing abortion pills for their own use without medical support or supervision, under threat of criminal prosecution and facing a penalty of up to 14 years' imprisonment.

The Eighth Amendment has not prevented Irish abortion. But it has generated or been implicated in a series of hard cases - including the 1992 X case involving a pregnant 14-year-old girl; the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, denied access to a termination of pregnancy until it was too late to save her life; and the awful PP case in 2014, where a young woman was artificially kept alive while her body decayed, because she was pregnant and doctors believed they could not intervene while there was a foetal heartbeat.

In recent years, we have heard many women and couples describing how they have had to travel to England to terminate pregnancies where they received the devastating diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

Constituencies with the strongest Yes/No vote

The table below shows the top five constituencies with the strongest vote for or against repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Dublin Bay South 78.49% 21.51%

Dún Laoghaire 77.06% 22.94%

Dublin Fingal 76.96% 23.04%

Dublin Central 76.51% 23.49%

Dublin Rathdown 76.10% 23.90%

Donegal 48.13% 51.87%

Ireland has been found in breach of women's human rights for our law in this respect - in the recent cases taken by Amanda Mellet and Siobhan Whelan, the UN Human Rights Committee found that both women had been subjected by the State to intense physical and mental suffering and inhumane treatment, because they had to travel to another country to access the care they needed or else would have been forced to continue a pregnancy to term knowing that their babies would not be born alive.

Under the Eighth Amendment, we as legislators could not pass any law to provide for abortion in any case other than risk to a woman's life - the test established in the X case. We were unable to legislate for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest; or even where a pregnancy posed a serious risk to a woman's health.

Even before the referendum was announced, leading obstetricians and doctors such as Rhona Mahony, Mary Higgins and Peter Boylan had increasingly been telling us about the seriously negative impact the amendment was having on their clinical practice and their ability to treat pregnant women patients with the care and compassion they needed.

Over the years, a change in public opinion had become apparent as the true impact of the Eighth Amendment was increasingly recognised.

This shift in opinion, caused by the death of Savita, the international law cases and the brave testimony of the many couples affected by fatal foetal abnormality through the Termination for Medical Reasons group, effectively drove the political momentum for change which led to the establishment of both the Citizens' Assembly and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

Both the assembly and the committee held hearings as to the effect of the amendment. Both recommended repeal, based on the strong medical evidence; and practical realities of women's lives. They recommended repeal, in order for us as legislators to be able to provide through legislation in a caring and compassionate manner for access to decent reproductive health care.

The reality is that for far too long, our responsibility as elected legislators had been handed over effectively to legislators in Westminster. Irish women were having abortions under English law. Truly an English solution to an Irish problem.

It should never have been seen as appropriate that we would leave regulation of our women's health care to be decided by parliament in a foreign jurisdiction or by a series of 'hard cases' taken through the courts.

During the past few months as we headed into the referendum vote, those of us campaigning with Together for Yes and within other organisations had been making these arguments in canvassing and conversations across the constituencies.

I was speaking at meetings and knocking in doors in and outside of Dublin over many weeks, and the growing public awareness of the immense harm and hardship caused by the Eighth Amendment had become more and more apparent. That awareness lies behind the immensely significant referendum vote in support of reform this weekend.

It should not have taken us this long to wake up to the reality of women's lives and needs. But at last, in 2018, as we celebrate the centenary of women's suffrage, we have voted as a mature and progressive electorate to ensure that we can legislate with compassion. Now finally we can end the chill of the Eighth Amendment, for the sake of our daughters and for their generation.

Ivana Bacik is a Labour Party senator and a campaigner for abortion rights

Sunday Independent

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