Words by Fiona Hyde, who co-edits Siren magazine, a gender equality-focused publication.
I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you to Youth Defence. I owe those guys a lot. The anti-abortion lobby group, housed together with An Cóir and the Life Institute down on Capel Street, have really done a huge amount for me this year. True, they actually haven’t delivered on any of their promises to me. And sure, they haven’t done any favours for my mental health whatsoever, nor have they “saved the lives of the 100,000 babies” as they say. Hey, alright, I suppose I also find both their methods and rhetoric deeply repulsive. Well, despite all that, I want to say thanks – because this Christmas, Youth Defence played a significant part in giving women the long-awaited gift of provision for abortion in Ireland.
Six months ago, Youth Defence ran a well-funded nationwide campaign, advising the general public that there was “always a better answer” than abortion, and that abortion “tears her life apart”. These completely false assertions, coupled with imagery of foetuses and sonograms, provoked disgust all across the country. Counter-campaigns were launched, complaints were brought to TDs, Senators and Councillors, queries were raised regarding advertising standards and accountability – and, ultimately, protests were organised leading to marches being attended.
Unwittingly, Youth Defence had recruited a new generation of pro-choice activists with these billboards. This new wave joined the solid vanguard of Irish feminists and politicians who had long advocated the introduction of legislation for abortion in Ireland. These men and women were united under one purpose, and united in their disbelief at the twenty year paralysis of successive Irish governments.
Youth Defence and their ilk certainly aren’t the only problem. Several major barriers stood and stand in the way of safe, legal access to abortion in Ireland. In 1983, the 8th Amendment was inserted into the Irish Constitution – the so-called “pro-life amendment”, otherwise known as Article 40.3.3. It was actually adopted during a Fine Gael and Labour coalition government, which certainly sounds a bit familiar. Ever since then, the “right to life of the unborn” has been enshrined in our Constitution as “equal” to that of a woman. Absolutely no qualifications exist regarding what constitutes “the unborn”, nor what exactly “as far as practicable” means when saving the life of a woman – nor does it mention her health. It is a vague, almost meaningless, deeply problematic element of our shared laws in this country and it still exists. It still exists, and any legislation brought in in 2013 by Fine Gael and Labour will never and can never change that without complete repeal. Our decades-long national wrangling with abortion is a direct result of this knotty part of our Constitution.
The 8th Amendment has real and frightening ramifications for the well-being of women in Ireland. Savita Halappanavar’s death this year from complications due to an extended miscarriage proved this. Her untimely passing after days of agony shocked not only the newest pro-choice advocates that Youth Defence helped create, but also sparked outrage in people who had never considered the issue before. The comfortable safety valve of “catching the boat across” had massaged most of us into a dull acceptance of our lack of abortion laws. Savita’s death made painfully apparent the fact that most women can travel to access the medical care we need – except those who are too sick or too poor. Groups such as the Pro Life Campaign, the Catholic Church, the Iona Institute and Youth Defence had always told us – and in fact continue to repeat – that we in Ireland enjoyed the best maternal healthcare in the world, and that abortion is never necessary to save the life of a woman. In the aftermath of a case such as Savita’s, these half-truths rang empty and cruel.
Though Savita’s recent passing undoubtedly precipitated the action, it is the twenty year old X Case ruling of 1992 that we will now receive legislation and regulations under. The Ms X in question, a child who fell pregnant from abuse and threatened suicide over her lack of right to choose abortion, was granted travel for termination under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of that pesky old 8th Amendment. The judge rightly recognised that mental health is real health, and that suicide is a real risk for pregnant women. However, despite the quite liberal interpretation of the flaws in the Constitution, we will never have true and unencumbered protection for women’s health, well-being and livelihoods without a deletion of the Article in its entirety.
In 2002, ten years after the X Case Supreme Court ruling, Fianna Fail contested the general election with the swagger-filled poster tagline: “A lot done – more to do”. They won that election with that slogan, and continued their decades of power, proceeding to ride the country directly into an economic abyss. As Fianna Fail won election after election, they also held two referendums on abortion. One of these was alongside that general election in 2002, their second attempt to try and twist the X Case ruling via referendum.
Twice they asked the Irish electorate if they were totally sure that the threat of suicide was grounds for access to abortion. Twice the electorate said yes. For years, because they didn’t quite get the answer they liked, they failed to legislate on X to protect half of our population or even to countenance genuine discussion of the issue. At the time of that general election and referendum, I was twelve years old. Though always an irritatingly precocious child, I still had no true conception of politics as having a genuine impact on me, no understanding that the decisions of suited older men affected my life. Ten years further down the line, these things feel a lot more real. The slogans on billboards in 2012 bothered me. Ultimately, they motivated me. They were telling me that there was “always a better answer” and I knew that it wasn’t true. I knew that nothing had been done, and that we have everything to do.
So, yes, this proposed action is a fantastic beginning, especially considering what’s come before. I’m delighted that the Irish government has decided that inaction caused by acute cowardice is no longer a viable strategy. Regulations, legislation and a review of the archaic law from the 1800s that criminalises abortion are on the horizon. After a long twenty years of fumbling and the tragic, preventable death of a woman in an Irish hospital, this is a step forward. But the abortion issue will hit another stumbling block if nothing is done about the 8th Amendment. So please, don’t forget the words of your dearly departed forbears, Enda. A lot done – more to do.