I’m From A Country Where Abortion Is Illegal: That Could All Be About To Change

I’m From A Country Where Abortion is Illegal. 

That Could All Be About To Change

Update: In a landslide election, Ireland voted to remove the eighth amendment on May 25th. Below are my views from the days before the historic election.

I was 18 when I discovered I meant less to the Republic of Ireland than the boys I grew up with.

A lecturer stood at the front of the auditorium in Dublin’s Trinity College, pontificating about literary theory, of which I had little interest, and understood even less.

That was until she reached feminism, and in a worming speech, decided to list the perils women still faced throughout the world in 2012, despite the feminist movement beginning over a century ago. There was a litany of female African revolts in recent decades to study; the subjugation of Arab women at the hands of extremists; the rampant rape culture in India; and of course, let us not forget, Ireland’s strangling abortion laws.

I was so confused. What strangling abortion laws? How had we been lumped in with these countries notorious for the subjugation of women?

As she went on to explain the eighth amendment of Ireland’s constitution, which deems that women who receive illegal abortions could receive up to a 14-year prison sentence, it became clear how utterly out of touch my 18-year-old self was. There had evidently been a gaping hole in my public education of 14 years, that had entirely omitted the subject of my bodily autonomy, or lack thereof, and that hole had lead to a false sense of security, and nationalism. My naive delusion of an equal, fair Ireland was at once obliterated, and my understanding of gender wholly altered. I was living in a country where my body was indeed a second class citizen, one where, if I ever came to pass with an unwanted or crisis pregnancy, I would be facing some major and potentially life-threatening obstacles. And all for what? Because I was born with a uterus in Catholic Ireland.

Ireland's first openly gay Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, smiles at the launch of his leadership campaign for the Fine Gael Party in Dublin, Ireland, 20 May 2017. Leo Varadkar is the favourite to win and become leader of the governing party in Ireland an EPA/Aidan Crawley

My comprehension of the situation dawned ironically at a time when Ireland’s Catholic church was being investigated by our health services for its treatment of women from the 1920s to the 1960s, at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Galway.

During this time, the church ran what are locally referred to as ‘laundries’ but which were in fact sweatshops, in which pregnant mothers worked in dastardly conditions. It emerged that these workhouses, that were publicly perceived as “homes” for prospective mothers to give their babies up for legal and safe adoptions, had sent over 1,000 babies to the U.S, without their mothers’ consent.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, it was a mere two years later before it was discovered that not only was the church complicit in illegal foreign adoption, but had also facilitated and covered up the deaths of nearly 800 children (the bones of some found in a mass grave just last year) that had come through or been born in that very same home, in Tuam. When religion and the court of public opinion govern, I suppose this is preferable to education or public policy.

Tuam residents, AKA unwed pregnant women, often had to suffer through excruciating work days, while facing inhuman work conditions, including inhaling toxic fumes.

The message was very clear, that the country would rather pretend things don’t exist at the cost of prevention or care of those involved. And yet fifty years after these atrocities, as a young idealistic English literature student unaware of the sad history that once faced the entirety of my gender, I would come to realize that things weren’t all that different even today.

As someone who grew up in a more moderate Ireland, while it might not be under the governance of the laundries, I too faced a governing body that would use morality as reasoning for restricting a woman’s right over her own body. I too was under the thumb of the Catholic church, and decision makers who cared more about perception than reality.

In my innocence, I would happily arrive into school on a Monday and form a comprehensive argument as to why Manchester Utd’s weekend match would win us that year’s Premier League title, regardless of the performance. On the days the weather allowed, I would not-so-gracefully parade around the football pitch for a lunchtime game of World Cup.

I didn’t know, and they certainly didn’t know, that during our time there, on that little shell of land, if an unwanted pregnancy befell me and Ireland had its way, by God, by decree of our (old, white, male) Prime Minister and by the might of the eighth amendment, I’d have that baby. No matter my age or innocence, no matter the circumstance, no matter the father.

As I rose through primary school in the Dublin suburbs, in the era of Bebo (Ireland’s equivalent of Myspace), to the tune of Ireland’s miraculous economic explosion, never once did I consider the boys in my class were anything other than my intellectual and bodily equals. And even thereafter, when it was time to go to an all-girls secondary(high) school, where gossip was rife and one would hear tales of girls who ‘got knocked up’ in fifth or sixth year, I still remained innocent, ignorant. As their bellies grew bigger walking the school halls, they would wear trousers instead of our tartan skirt to school, and yet even then, watching as 16 year olds became mothers, I never once questioned there might be an alternative. In my high school, we were absolved of the perils and nuances of our gender, the secondary school curriculum doesn’t go so far as to mention 1983, or the X case, or 2002. Instead, we were celebrated as the talented ladies of the future, all the while unknowing that so-called promising future was so utterly compromised, our bodies not, in fact, our own.

And even thereafter, when it was time to go to an all-girls secondary(high) school, where gossip was rife and one would hear tales of girls who ‘got knocked up’ in fifth or sixth year, I still remained innocent, ignorant. As their bellies grew bigger walking the school halls, they would wear trousers instead of our tartan skirt to school, and yet even then, watching as 16 year olds became mothers, I never once questioned there might be an alternative. In my high school, we were absolved of the perils and nuances of our gender, the secondary school curriculum doesn’t go so far as to mention 1983, or the X case, or 2002. Instead, we were celebrated as the talented ladies of the future, all the while unknowing that so-called promising future was so utterly compromised, our bodies not, in fact, our own.

Here in my New York present, a city so ludicrously liberal, so forward-thinking, so aware, that upon telling a New Yorker about Ireland’s eighth amendment, they simply sit in shock and awe. Ireland? A country so liberal as to be the first in the world to legalize gay marriage, a country so envied for its outspoken creatives, a country so admired for its frivolity, that they forgot their women might deserve the right to choose?

“Oh yeah, that’s Ireland,” I say.

In New York, liberal issues go hand in hand. If you support gay marriage, you probably support women’s rights. If you support women’s rights, you’re probably pro-choice, because you trust women to make their own decisions, and not need a man’s, or anyone else’s approval, before making them. In New York, I have the right to myself, and this is something I’ll never take for granted.

As I watch from afar the raging debate that consumes both the yes and no sides, knowing I can’t come home to have my say on May 25th, it’s torment. I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there won’t be a more important referendum in my lifetime, and I’m missing it. In a cruel twist of fate, circumstances are out of my hands, and I have no choice on the matter, but to stay here and hope the country makes the right decision.

And it pains me, not that I won’t be able to cast a vote, (while it is a considerable sore spot), but that there’s a possibility my 16-year-old sister will grow up in an Ireland who continues to place her needs, her life, and her future, at the bottom of the totem pole. That she, unlike I, who was a mere 8 years old in 2002, will be keenly aware of how little her life is valued. And that she will discover, years earlier than myself, there is little to no sense staying somewhere when your very existence is worth less than those around you.

Amy Corcoran

Head of Content at SWAAY: Amy is an Irish writer, avid foodie and feminist with an insatiable appetite for novels and empowering women's writing. She has enjoyed calling Dublin, Paris and now New York her home.

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