Alix O'Neill

Ireland’s abortion referendum and the fight for female equality

Ireland's abortion referendum and the fight for female equality
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Ahead of the abortion referendum in Ireland next week, there’s a newspaper advert doing the rounds on Twitter. Printed in the Irish Daily Star earlier this week, it reads:

“Men protect lives. It is impossible to look away. As a parent, uncle, grandfather we have a bond that can never be broken. Vote No to abortion on demand”

The implication appears to be that women are callous creatures who neither protect lives nor deserve protection. So men have to step in to do so.

Next Friday, Irish voters will be asked if they want to repeal the eighth amendment, which gives unborn foetuses and pregnant women equal right to life. Since 2013, abortions have been allowed but only when the life of the mother is at risk. Ireland has one of the world’s most punitive abortion laws – the maximum penalty for a termination is 14 years behind bars.

It’s odd, isn’t it? That the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage by popular vote should take such a myopic view of what is generally considered an essential part of reproductive healthcare. The referendum is expected to pass, but it has taken years to get to this point. Why? The answer isn't surprising: abortion concerns the messy business of women’s bodies, and Ireland's Catholic heritage has contributed to a demonisation of female sexuality which still lingers. Church and State are no longer bedfellows, but the stigma remains.

I grew up in Northern Ireland (part of the UK, yet abortion laws are equally as regressive as south of the border) in the 1990s and went to university in Dublin. Like many of my friends, I knew there could be no open discussion around sex, periods and masturbation. Such things were too earthy, too crude, not what good girls spent their time talking about. As for breasts, they were for your partner's pleasure, playthings to be hidden away at all other times. Which perhaps explains why Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. 

And pregnancy? The No campaign fetishises the maternal. They want us to believe that motherhood is the apotheosis of the female experience. Yet this hasn't always been the case. So-called “fallen” pregnant women were packed off to Magdalene laundries for centuries. Recently, the remains of hundreds of babies born to unwed mothers were found in a mass grave at a former children’s home – beside a septic tank. Yes, motherhood is sacred indeed. 

My mum is a by-product of the state’s historic obsession with controlling women’s bodies. Her unmarried birth mother was pressurised by the Church to give her up at birth. No one in her family or town acknowledged her pregnancy or the adoption, and a year or so after the birth, she moved to the US. Mother and daughter met for first time in 2014 shortly before the former passed away.

My biological grandmother kept her secret for almost 60 years, too ashamed to tell even her husband. But that’s Ireland for you: we’re a nation built on cover ups and denial. We turn a blind eye to corrupt bankers, make “boys will be boys” excuses for a rugby culture rife with misogyny. But the real state secrets, as Fintan O’Toole writes in a recent column for the Irish Times, concern women’s bodies:

“Irish women did not use the contraceptive pill. They did not have abortions. Irish women did not have their cancers misdiagnosed.”

(To date, 18 women out of 209 have died after being given incorrect smear test results by Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme.) O’Toole describes the "weirdly inverse relationship between secrecy and privacy. The more secretive the official culture remains, the less privacy its victims end up having". 

In the run-up to the referendum, numerous women have come forward to share their experience of abortion. Silence or shouting – for years, these have been our options, but now things are different. If the eighth amendment is repealed, Irish women can finally reclaim a comfortable middle ground with men.