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Politics Repealing Ireland's Eighth Amendment

May. 21, 2018
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On May 25th, Ireland votes on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment, an article in the Irish Constitution that protects the right to unborn life—in effect, making abortion illegal with the exception of women whose lives are endangered by a pregnancy. Women can face a jail sentence of up to fourteen years for an abortion, even in the case of rape. If her health is at risk but her condition is not deemed fatal, abortion is illegal; medical staff who do as little as give any advice regarding termination of pregnancy can face a prison sentence. Irish women’s access to abortion comes at a price: they must travel to England for a procedure or face a backstreet abortion which often comes in the form of abortion pills ordered online. 

Helen Linehan, a writer and co-creator of Motherland (BBC, Sundance), and her husband Graham (known for Father Ted and The IT Crowd) shared their support for repealing the Eighth Amendment publically with the charity Amnesty in 2015. I met with Helen, who wore the jumper pictured above to show support for the repeal campaign—simple and black, with the word “repeal” written in white. After taking portraits of her in this, I interviewed Helen, who graciously told me about her own relationship with Ireland and abortion. She became pregnant soon after getting married. She tells me:

“We had our 12-week scan and the scan showed a problem. The top of the skull was missing from the fetus, so we went back the next day for an internal scan, which is very intrusive, we were feeling pretty numb. They confirmed what we believed it was, which is a condition called acrania. The doctors then said this is basically a fatal condition and offered a termination. There was no question about the termination of the pregnancy, because it was going to be harmful. It could possibly have survived in my body—I could have carried it to term, but had I given birth to it, it wouldn't have survived. So the best thing all around was to have a termination and try again.”

Living in Great Britain with the support of free healthcare from the NHS, the termination was entirely free, and so was the support that was provided through counseling—an incredibly important factor in supporting the mental health of women who have had an abortion. But like many citizens outside of Ireland, Helen was unaware that what she had done is illegal in Ireland. 

“We went on to have a healthy pregnancy, to have our first child, and when she was about one year old we moved to Dublin not knowing that the Eighth Amendment existed. I was chatting [with] a fellow mum who told me that her friend had had the same experience as myself, but because Ireland criminalizes having an abortion, she was bound to that pregnancy and she had to go through with it. In fact, that's why we left Dublin, why we moved back to England. We didn't want to bring our kids up in a country that denies women the right to healthcare, and this is what it is the issue in Ireland is, it’s about health care.”

Pregnant Irish women are left with very few options when deciding against bringing a fetus to full term, all of which come at a high cost physically and mentally. In 2016 alone, 3,265 Irish girls and women gave Irish addresses while accessing abortion services at clinics in Great Britain. Traveling to Great Britain and paying for these services is not cheap and heavily impacts working-class women and young girls who may not have the means to pay off this debt. According to BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisement Service), even though a discount for Irish women is provided, an abortion pill for fetuses under 10 weeks can still cost €380, not including the initial consultation fee often charged as well. Many citizens travel to Great Britain to access this service and return within the same day, unable to pay for accommodations. Repealing this amendment takes away the financial strain and also makes the mental and physical process that young girls and women have to go through a bit less complicated.  

Helen feels that repealing the Eighth Amendment will also allow people to discuss it more freely, as the subject is still taboo among many folks. 

I asked Helen why she believes the amendment’s repeal is important for our young generation of women, the Irish millennials and Generation Z. She told me, “Because we're doing it for them, for the next generation and generations to come. There's no place for a ban of women's healthcare in government constitution.”

She tells me the story of Savita Halappanavar, a Galway dentist denied an abortion after falling ill due to an inevitable miscarriage. Savita was forced to endure the miscarriage after their hospital’s midwife manager explained that the termination could not be carried out because Ireland is "a Catholic country.” This induced sepsis and resulted in Savita’s death. 

Helen feels strongly about this, explaining, “It's something that nobody ever wants to have to go through. But abortion is needed, it always will be, it always has been. What the government does is turn its back on girls and women who need advice. It affects them mentally, too. In Ireland, no medical professional is allowed to give you any advice on termination. It's illegal. They can also face a prison sentence of fourteen years.”

Hearing about Savita’s death shocked me. Women are truly at risk; while the amendment still stands, their freedom and basic healthcare is denied. I asked Helen what advice she’d give to voters in Ireland, particularly young people undecided on their vote and why it’s important for them to exercise their right to vote to repeal the amendment. 

“I guess my mantra is it's not going away. If you are deeply religious, if you deeply think that that a fetus has an equal right to to the woman, then you can't deny the fact that there are queues of girls coming over here [to Great Britain.]

If you are undecided or even if you're completely against termination or abortion, statistically, you probably know someone who's had one, and voting against it just makes it harder for girls and women to access the healthcare they need… There will be more women drinking bleach and trying to kill themselves, [and] there will be no therapy available for women because your country doesn't recognize that you've had an abortion. The campaign against repealing this amendment, they've got loads of funding, so Ireland is just covered in posters at the moment with really horrific propaganda and statistics that are not even realistic. They give an impression that women in [Great Britain] get abortions [during] their lunch breaks and go back to work skipping away as if it were used as a form of contraception and it's absolutely not the case. It's a horrible, intrusive operation. Nobody wants to go through with things like that, nobody wants to have it. I've heard the term recreational abortion, it makes you think these are ‘slutty’ girls not using contraception and are just using abortion as a form of safeguarding getting pregnant. It's absolute bollocks—talk to any of the worried girls, mothers of girls and women who have been through it. It’s horrible.”

The Abortion Support Network and BPAS aid women in Ireland who plan to travel for abortions.