Repeal the 8th Amendment

Wednesday 9 May 2018 15:49

On the 8th Amendment

‘Whatever happens while you’re taking this medication,’ the doctor told me, ‘Liz must not become pregnant.’ The medication was a form of chemotherapy that was used to treat my lifelong illness (Still’s Disease) at that time, and still is sometimes. But the stark fact that ‘Liz must not become pregnant’ in a country where abortion was illegal and punishable by 14 years imprisonment certainly concentrated our minds on the question of the 8th amendment.

Of course we were part of the generation that lost last time round in the 70s and 80s - so many battles we lost or partially won! Contraception was one that we almost carried (‘An Irish solution to an Irish problem’, as Charlie Haughey called it, meant that contraceptives, including condoms, were initially only available on prescription which meant you were at the mercy of your doctor’s conscience, and many of them had extremely delicate consciences). Divorce we lost and the later won. But SPUC and Youth Defence and the Catholic Church and the right-wing parties carried the day on abortion with spectacular style and devastating effect. We were the generation that lost on abortion. I look now at a new generation of much more intelligent, much wiser and much better campaigners, and have a profound hope that they will succeed where we failed.

We were lucky in that our family was already complete when our GP’s stern warning rocked me back on my heels. In my mother’s case things were slightly different, but the same brutal patriarchal machine was in operation - even without an 8th Amendment. After my sister was born my mother suffered an internal haemorrhage. When my aunt, who had qualified as a nurse in London, confronted the gynaecologist with the fact that my mother was slowly bleeding to death in her hospital bed, he refused to carry out a hysterectomy on the basis that is would be a form of contraception and this was a Catholic hospital. He held his clean white hands out and said to my father, refusing to address a ‘mere’ woman, ‘Mr Wall these hands were blessed by the Pope.’ The mere woman, actually a nursing Gold Medallist from St Thomas’  Hospital and a formidable brain, threatened to sue him and he somehow squared his conscience and did the deed and saved my mother’s life against his will.

These are just two experiences of Ireland’s Catholic care system – relatively benign experiences when one considers the other branches of that vast system of care: the Magdalene Laundries, the Industrial Schools, Savita Halappanavar, the X-case and all the other lettered cases, and the vast array of powers that have been aligned against women in every walk of life, but especially working class women, in what passes for a democratic republic in Ireland. Nevertheless, even these small experiences are enough to convince me that it is the woman’s place to choose what can and can not be done to her body: not the place of a Catholic Bishop; not the place of Justin Barrett of Youth Defence and his little racist political party; not the people of Save the 8th with their secret American money from the same people who put Trump in power and who have picketed women’s refuges and medical clinics and whose racism and xenophobia and misogyny we do not want to import to Ireland. None of these people have any right whatsoever to tell a child to carry a pregnancy to full term; to tell a woman who is carrying a dead baby that she must carry it to term; to tell a woman whose child will die at birth that she must carry it to term; to tell a woman suffering from septicaemia that she must die to save her child; to tell a woman in Direct Provision that she cannot travel to England for an abortion because she is too poor; to tell a woman that there is no abortion in Ireland and that therefore she must buy her abortion pills in secret and take them without medical supervision and that if she presents at a hospital with complications she runs the risk of fourteen years in prison if she meets a zealous Catholic doctor such as my mother met.

For how many years now have women in Ireland suffered in the hands of the Church and State? When the Church buried the Mother and Child Scheme, when they blocked contraception and divorce, when they took control of the hospitals and the schools and dominated the state, they were fierce in their love for women as long as those women were subservient, obedient, chaste and, if married, producing children within wedlock. What did they do to those women who were not obedient and chaste producers of new souls for the Church to save? They savaged them, locked them away,  drove them from our shores, silenced them, literally buried them in unmarked graves and took even their names. If we lose this referendum we risk returning to the same regime. There will be a powerful backlash and the people behind it will include shadowy forces from the extreme Right in the USA as well as our own homegrown fascists.

It is time, it is long time, to repeal the 8th Amendment and to put in place a decent, supportive, caring regime for pregnant women and children.