Whatever you talk about, don’t talk about abortion. That was the message of the first televised Irish General Election leaders’ debate this week. In spite of increasing societal willingness to discuss Ireland’s abortion laws openly, mainstream politicians and the state broadcaster, RTE, did not seem to think Ireland’s constitutional ban on termination of pregnancies was worth mentioning.
Parties including Labour, Sinn Féin and the newly-formed Social Democrats have made manifesto pledges to hold a referendum on the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution, which cements the ban. Introduced in 1983 after vigorous campaigning by Catholic anti-choice activists, and endorsed by two-thirds of those who voted, the eighth amendment to the referendum promises that: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
It is that dual emphasis on the rights of the unborn and the mother that creates a Zugzwang for clinicians: in cases where continuing a pregnancy could threaten the life of a woman, are medical staff legally able to terminate or not? The horror of the situation became clear in October 2012, when 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar was refused an abortion in a Galway hospital, in spite of the fact she had begun to miscarry due to a bacterial infection. That infection killed her.
Since then, voices have been raised on the need to change the law: Amnesty Ireland has taken on abortion as a campaign cause, and there is an increasing movement for Irish women who have had an abortion, such as Irish Times columnist Róisín Ingle, and Helen Linehan, wife of comedy writer Graham Linehan, to discuss the circumstances of their terminations. Crucial in this has been an effort to normalise abortion as a choice women make, not a tragedy. Novelist Louise O’Neill recently wrote of her strange feeling during a recent pregnancy scare, facing the prospect of having to travel to Britain for a termination (the only option available for legal abortion for Irish women). In spite of being a lifelong pro-choice campaigner, she was terrified of having to tell people about having an abortion:
“It made me wonder about how shackled I still feel by societal expectations of what women should or shouldn’t do.
“I hate that.
“I hate the fact that, though women have always and will always choose to have abortions, I live in a country that wants them to feel like criminals for doing so.
“I hate the fact that these women are shamed.
“I hate the fact they are supposed to slink out of the country to sort out the “problem” and then pretend nothing ever happened.
“Don’t air your dirty laundry in public, dear.”
One is tempted to descend into ever-decreasing circles and commend O’Neill for her bravery on admitting to her lack of bravery etc etc, but that way lies inertia where what is required is anger. The brave and tragic narrative must be changed to one of injustice and inequity.
Mainstream Irish politicians’ need to keep our dirty laundry hidden, or put it on a Ryanair flight to London, reached a numbing low in a Sunday Independent interview with young health minister Leo Varadkar published on 7 February. Pressed repeatedly on the issue of abortion, confronted with the statistic that 12 Irish women travel to Britain every day for an abortion, Varadkar tersely told journalist Niamh Horan: "I really had understood this interview was going to be about health and politics." - as if abortion is neither a health issue nor one of politics. This is something Ireland has always been good at: we recast things we find difficult to discuss as “private” and then we never have to deal with them.
In this, one worries that Varadkar may have the measure of the electorate better than the many progressive campaigners who have rallied round the #repealthe8th meme. Winning the battle on Twitter and in the pages of the liberal Irish Times is one thing, but it’s possible that the majority of the population remains squeamish about and even hostile towards reproductive rights. Of the parties committed to a referendum on the amendment, only the tiny Social Democrats and the hard left Anti-Austerity Alliance appear to support the full right to abortion (rather than in limited circumstances of foetal abnormality, rape and incest).
The largest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have entirely avoided the issue in their manifestos, and in the likely coalition negotiations that will follow the 26 February poll, it is all to easy to imagine the smaller parties referendum promises being quietly dropped.
The tactic of normalisation worked well for campaigners who successfully lobbied for gay marriage rights – the idea that everyone knows someone who’s gay, and gay people are a normal part of society. Abortion campaigners are right to pursue the same strategy – you know someone who has had an abortion, and she shouldn’t be made feel like a criminal. Talking out loud is crucial to this. But it may take longer than we think, as the silence of the party leaders and the state broadcaster this week shows.