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Let’s despatch the Eighth

The appeal of repeal

One morning recently I woke up to abusive tweets. “What is it with lesbians hating unborn babies?? Please explain!”. “Why so many lesbians pushing abortion when they should never really need one??!!!”.

As a long-time feminist campaigner and Convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, vulgar interactions from anti-choice supporters are inescapable. I’m too long in the activist tooth to let them bother me (much), but this latest batch does make me wonder.

Why is “lesbian” used as a term of abuse, and what has it got to do with “hating” babies, or women, or men, or indeed anything else?

I’d like to tweet back (but I don’t): “Look here, you with the vituperative tweet finger, I’m a feminist, lesbian, radical Irish grannie (of two, so far), and I’m pro-choice because I believe in equality, in human rights, in justice, and in a world where all women, everywhere, including my daughter and my granddaughter, have the right to make decisions for ourselves about our bodies and our reproductive lives. It’s a national issue, it’s global and it’s also very personal. So there!”.

The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment was set up in recognition of evident and popular demand for change. Our members include trade unions, pro-choice and feminist groups, human-rights organisations and many other NGOs and groups.

The next year or so will be vitally important in advancing this issue. It has become a real election issue. If political soundings are to be believed, we can expect a “national conversation” after the election in the form of a Citizens’ Convention, followed by a referendum.

It is hard to exaggerate the ‘chilling’ impact of the Eighth Amendment on women, on doctors in preventing them from working in the best interests of their patients, and on our society as a whole. What does it say about respect for women and our capacity to make our own decisions about our lives? What does it say about respect for human rights principles?

Successive Governments have ignored robust criticism of the Eight Amendment from UN and other international human rights bodies.

Even as I write, there’s a woman setting off from Sligo or Kerry or Wexford or Dublin on that dismal journey to the UK for an abortion she can’t obtain here with the support of her partner, her family, her friends, her GP. There’s another woman getting off the plane on her lonely trek back, and another desperately trying to find the money or the vital travel documents, or whatever else she needs to go abroad for an abortion.

Every day, at least ten women are forced to go through this exhausting and demeaning process because the law and the health services fail to provide for women’s full reproductive needs and rights. We have no idea how many more women are in tears and desperate because they don’t have the resources of money, travel papers, childcare, time off work, good enough health and capacity, or whatever it is they would need to be able to make the journey.

We predicted the direct and dangerous implications of the Eighth Amendment for women when it was introduced into the Constitution in 1983. We have learned with terrible sadness and anger of women dying. We have had to bear unwilling witness to innumerable personal tragedies dragged through the Courts and exposed in the media.

As women, the Eighth Amendment ensures that our human rights are consistently breached during pregnancy by making a dangerous, unworkable distinction between our lives and our health. It denies us life-saving treatment such as chemotherapy. It forces us to remain pregnant against our will, even in cases of rape, incest and where a fatal foetal abnormality has been diagnosed.

The Eighth Amendment puts our health at risk, denying us options even when the outcomes are clearly long-term and debilitating. It discriminates against poor and marginalised women and all those who cannot travel abroad for an abortion. Disgracefully, it criminalises women for the ‘procurement’ of an abortion, including women who obtain the abortion pill, the safest and most straightforward means of abortion. It criminalises medical professionals who assist women to do so. It places punitively strict parameters around the crucial information that reproductive health services can provide.

It’s clear that the Eighth Amendment no longer reflects public opinion, with poll after poll showing strong support for its repeal. While we certainly don’t underestimate the amount of work to be done, our members are committed to the battle ahead. With public support we will campaign vigorously for repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

In 2016, we don’t think that’s too much to ask. Do you?

Ailbhe Smyth

Ailbhe Smyth is Convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment