Opinion

Saturday 19 January 2019

Time for change... our women deserve care and compassion

Broadcaster Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain explains why she will be voting Yes in the referendum

I’LL TRUST IRISH WOMEN: Broadcaster and academic Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain in Castlebar yesterday. Photo: Conor McKeown
I’LL TRUST IRISH WOMEN: Broadcaster and academic Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain in Castlebar yesterday. Photo: Conor McKeown

Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain

I was not always in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. There was a time in my early 20s where I thought the issue of abortion was black and white. It was my wonderful aunt, a midwife and family planning nurse who had spent time working in the UK, who carefully talked me through the difficult and heart-breaking discussions she had been part of with women who had decided to have an abortion.

Stories of women who knew their babies would not survive and, with dignity and respect, could say goodbye to their child. Stories of women with diagnoses of cancer who could not be treated without terminating their pregnancy.

Stories of women who had been raped; of women who were victims of domestic violence and were afraid for their lives; of young girls, under the legal age of consent, who were not ready to be pregnant. Stories of very many Irish women, in those same situations, who had gone to the UK because they could not speak to a doctor or a nurse in Ireland.

My aunt asked me if I could, in good conscience, make a judgment and decision for each and every one of those women. I agreed that I could not.

I was born in 1983 and abortion was already illegal in Ireland. It was following a case in the US (Roe v Wade) where the Supreme Court recognised the constitutional right of a woman to privacy when making her own medical decisions, and a ruling in Ireland that a married couple could import contraceptives for their own use in family planning (McGee v Ireland), that conservative groups wanted to make sure abortion would never be allowed in this country.

It was a different time: it was not possible to buy contraceptives, there was political instability, and experiences from those in religious-run institutes across the country had not yet come to light. Despite warnings from people such as the attorney general of the time, Peter Sutherland, who highlighted the dangerous situations which could arise if the amendment was introduced, the referendum passed and, 35 years on, we have seen the grim consequences.

In 1992, a 14-year-old girl - a secondary school student - was raped by someone she knew and she became pregnant. She did not want to have the baby - and was prevented from travelling to the UK by the High Court.

This case, the X case, only came to light because her family, eager to have the perpetrator arrested, wanted to know if DNA could be used as evidence in criminal proceedings.

This is only one story of countless rape victims who have been let down by their country. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland had violated the European Convention on Human Rights for its laws which prevented three women, one of whom wanted children but was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, from having an abortion. Doctors in Ireland are continuously forced to refuse medical treatment for their patients if they are pregnant.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died as a result of being denied an abortion while suffering a septic miscarriage. Savita, who had accepted the fact she would lose the baby, had asked for the pregnancy to be terminated. Unfortunately, due to the Eighth Amendment, women are restricted on decisions related to their own health while pregnant.

In 2017, the United Nations found Ireland had violated the rights of a woman who was forced to travel to Britain after her baby was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality. There have been thousands of women and couples who have been forced to go abroad in similar same sad circumstances. Without removing this amendment from our Constitution, there can be no change to this status quo and these stories will continue to be repeated.

Introducing the Eighth Amendment has not stopped abortion in Ireland. Approximately 170,000 Irish women, from every county in the country, have travelled abroad to have abortions since 1983 - an average of 12 women per day. The use of abortion pills, which can have life-threatening repercussions if not taken with the oversight of a healthcare professional, is on the increase. Circumstances deemed as shameful and wrong continue to be hidden and exported.

Last year the Citizens' Assembly, consisting of 99 citizens broadly representative of the Irish electorate, were tasked to consider the Eighth Amendment. After listening to submissions from the public, representative groups and citizen organisations, they voted to recommend termination of pregnancy up to 12 weeks.

These people gave freely of their time, carefully considered all of the information, studied the amendment and voted to repeal it. This recommendation was supported by the Oireachtas committee - and now on May 25 we will vote to either keep things as they are or move for change.

I understand that it may be frightening to invite change into our society and culture, but research shows that rates of abortion occur far less in countries where it is legal, than in countries where it is illegal. Ireland will be the same great country, only having moved a decision from the Constitution into a safe and informed conversation between a woman and her doctor.

Abortion can be a difficult topic to discuss. From the rights of the mother and those of the unborn, to medical considerations and religious views, there are many nuances and elements to consider. However, for every case of abortion there is a unique and personal story which, I believe, cannot be determined by the Eighth Amendment in our Constitution. I will be voting yes on May 25, because I trust Irish women.

I will be voting Yes because it's time to bring care and compassion home.

Sunday Independent

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