In the coming weeks, voters in Ireland will have the chance to repeal the eighth amendment, which recognises the equal rights to life of a foetus and the mother during pregnancy. We must send a message to the world, the author declares
Recently I spoke to a reasonable, sane Irish woman who said that she was against abortion and because she was so reasonable and sane, I was curious what she meant by that. Was she against the morning after pill? Certainly not. What about chemical abortifacients? They did not really worry her too much. So, what about terminations before 12 or 13 weeks, the time when woman are often given the all clear to confirm their pregnancy to family and friends? This woman was not, all things considered, against terminations during this window, when pregnancy is not considered medically certain. She was also, just to make clear, in favour of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest. In 1983 this woman might have voted “against abortion”, despite the fact that she is not against abortion, especially if it happens during those weeks when the natural loss of an embryo is called miscarriage. She just found abortion, in general, hard to vote “for”. Had there been no referendum in 1983 – where people with a range of uncertainties were asked for a single “yes” or “no” – then limited abortion might well be available now in Ireland, in the way that the morning after pill is legally available and widely used.
The 1983 referendum was a little like the Brexit referendum – a population voting about something that seemed, on one side, clear, and on the other, contingent and hard to describe. As it turned out, the language problem worked both ways. In order to bring the issue to a vote, a new legal term had to be minted, one that did not appear in any previous laws. The eighth amendment to the Irish constitution acknowledges the right to life of “the unborn” and this seemed to invent a new category of rights-holder, possibly a new kind of person. By acknowledging the “equal right to life of the mother” an impregnated woman was changed from a human being into a relationship, that of motherhood, and a peculiar equivalence established. Pregnancy was a binary state, in which two souls temporarily shared the same blood supply. The question of who had it first was neither here nor there and a fertilised egg was a grown adult, temporarily inconvenienced by being a few hundred cells large.
How does access to abortion vary across the UK?
Acknowledging the 'right to life' of the unborn seemed to invent a new category of rights-holder – a new kind of person
Related: Ireland's government approves abortion referendum bill
In 2016, Britain and the US voted for the tribal and symbolic –in Ireland we had a tribal, symbolic vote in 1983 Continue reading...