Over recent weeks, I have been out canvassing extensively for a Yes vote in the impending referendum on repealing the 8th amendment of Ireland’s constitution.
This amendment, introduced in 1983, states that a woman and a foetus have an equal right to life, which makes abortion illegal in all cases unless there is a significant threat to a woman’s life.
I’ve been out in Dublin and elsewhere and have met many women and men on doorsteps who have not yet decided how they will vote. But most people I’ve spoken to across the constituencies, including those still undecided, do accept that Ireland’s current abortion law is too restrictive.
In truth, most empathetic and reasonable adults accept that women – mothers, sisters, daughters and friends – should be able to terminate a pregnancy in some circumstances. Most, however unsure about their voting intentions, agree that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, where pregnancy poses a serious risk to a woman’s health; or where a couple has received the devastating diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
And most people recognise that the 8th amendment is an absolute bar to any lifting of the prohibition on abortion in any of these circumstances. They know that it has caused real harm to many generations of women. They know that it has been implicated in a series of tragic cases, notably the the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died from septicaemia when she miscarried after being refused an abortion.
They also know that, in the 35 years since the 8th amendment was passed, thousands of Irish women have travelled to England to access abortion there. If the amendment stays in place they will continue to travel to England. They will continue to import the abortion pill for use here in Ireland in circumstances where they will not have access to medical support and could face criminal sanction.
For anyone aware of these realities, and unhappy with the current highly restrictive law, there is only one way to vote in the referendum.
A Yes vote is essential to make any change in the law on abortion. The reality is that the many, many women, doctors and families whose lives have been affected by the 8th amendment will have little or no patience with hypothetical legal arguments being made by the No side for a new text, or a different referendum. They will be aware instead of the pressing practical need to achieve change in the law. That’s the only way that legislation can be introduced that enables doctors to offer compassion and care to women in crisis pregnancy.
Without a vote in favour of repeal, there is no other way to legally provide for terminations of pregnancy on grounds of fatal foetal abnormality in Ireland. There is no other way to do provide them on grounds of rape or incest; or even where a pregnancy poses a serious risk to a woman’s health. It’s long past time the absolute constitutional prohibition on reform was removed. Democratically elected legislators need to be allowed to introduce an appropriate legal framework for the regulation of lawful termination of pregnancy.