“Ireland is not taking care of its women.” Kelly Warburton, a screenwriter who lives in London but is from Cork tells me.
“The financial burden of this, the emotional pain and then the shame attached to having had an abortion is something which has to stop,” she adds.
Women in Ireland face up to 14 years in prison if they have an abortion in any part of the country, and considering the average sentence for rape in Ireland is 9 years and 3 months, something seems off.
A poll by The Irish Times last week, concluded that the majority of Irish people are currently against the procedure, with only 24 per cent in favour of abortions in any circumstance, and 57 per cent opting to legalise the procedure in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or real risk to the life of the woman. The survey comes after the planned 2018 referendum, which will repeal the 8th amendment of the constitution, that is, whether abortion should continue to be banned in nearly every circumstance, other than real risk to a woman’s life. This was crucially put to the test in the case of Savita Halappanavar a 31-year-old woman who died in Galway, Ireland from a sceptic miscarriage in 2012, after being denied an abortion.
Dr. Peter Boylan, a, gynaecologist, obstetrician and former Master and Clinical Director of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital said in a statement, “Under the [current law] we must wait until women become sick enough before we can intervene. How close to death do you have to be? There is no answer to that.” Is it the stronghold of the church, tradition, or even resentment to change that props up this legislation and refuses any leniency?
In part, almost certainly, but what do some of the Irish in London think is behind this Draconian sentence? Laoise Fitzgerald, 21 who studies in London but is from Dublin says, “It’s archaic relationships with the church and people are scared of it. The government and the church should be completely separate.” It becomes clear this is a topic she feels needs to be addressed as she moves closer to the edge of the sofa and toward me. Keeping eye contact, she adds, “Having the law there to stop abortion isn’t stopping it at all, it still happens, it’s just making it really difficult, stressful and unsafe for women.” She tells me of the heartbreak that a friend faced after having to come to the UK to have an abortion. “There was just no support.”
Laoise Fitzgerald is pictured.
In Ireland, the unborn foetus is viewed with the same status as a citizen and this remains one of the strictest jurisdictions in Europe. Earlier this year, mass unmarked child graves were discovered in Tuam, Galway, containing the remains of up to 800 babies and children. The children were the offspring of hundreds of unmarried women raised in a mother and baby home, run by a Catholic religious order of nuns known as the Bon Secours Sisters. The remains were identified to be children ranging from ages 35 weeks up to three years, this high infant mortality rate and subsequent large graves remained thematic at Catholic-led institutions in the 20th Century. The irony of these unmarked, unrecorded deaths stands offensive and hypocritical – in light of the Irish laws on abortion – to the relatives of these women and children.
With examples like Halappanavar and the unmarked baby graves, contradicting and ignoring women’s rights, Ireland continues to live under a dated law. How can the women of Ireland begin to trust the church, government and even healthcare professionals? “We deserve to be protected as a fundamental right, the law has to be there for women who are vulnerable, distressed and can’t afford to travel to the UK,” Fitzgerald adds.
Women are able to go abroad, but what if the situation becomes so desperate and there are no budget flights to the UK left, only more expensive options that your current socio-economic status doesn’t match? Since June, women from northern Ireland – that is part of the UK – can be treated on the NHS for the procedure, but those from the Republic have to fork out often large sums of money, some of which, just do not have. “Thousands of Irish women will continue to travel to the UK for this expensive procedure, adding further stress to an already extremely difficult situation,” Matthew Mathers who is from Omagh, Northern Ireland and studies in London tells me.
For some, the trauma and secrecy of having to travel to another country for an abortion is too much. The shame brought on by having an unwanted pregnancy in Ireland, is something that any woman would struggle to come to terms with. But, of course more than 165,000 women have travelled over the Irish sea to the UK since the 1980s and up to 4,000 per year leave the country for an abortion, so how much of a well-kept secret is it? Donna Naughton, 20 from Kerry and also living in London tells me, “If a woman gets pregnant through rape, she has to go to England to get an abortion? Ridiculous! Every man has the right to all medical care to do with their body and so should women. It’s that simple and it’s all we want.”
But Ireland remains in the grips of a pro-life stronghold with many campaigns and rallies held all year round against legalising abortion. Even a quick flick through the Citizen’s Assembly shows a completely different reality. One submission reads: “Abortion far from liberating women has been shown to result in detrimental health effects for many women. Instead we should strive to provide every support possible to help women to reach the fulfilment of their pregnancy.” Another adds: “From a very early stage a foetus displays the characteristics of a human being.” And, perhaps unsurprisingly many people strongly disagree. Warburton says to me: “Abortion, no matter what the reason should be a woman’s choice and she should be supported in this. She adds: “It was not long ago that the women of Ireland were told that contraception was a sin and women who dared express their sexuality and who fall pregnant outside of marriage were thrown into mother and baby homes and magdalene laundries.”
The referendum is to take place in Ireland next year, and the Irish people who live in London also face the cold fact that akin to abortions, where they have to travel to the UK, in order to vote they have to travel back to Ireland, which surely will deter some. Will Ireland ever support its women? Based on the poll, the grim reality is no, but polls aren’t everything – look at Brexit. It has become clear women and men are frustrated with the current law on abortion in Ireland and what it represents for women’s rights. From Halappanavar’s case of death to the mass unmarked baby graves and the potential prison sentence that accompanies an abortion in Ireland versus a sentence for rape. The Irish in London care for their women and we must remain optimistic that all the people of Ireland, can move one step closer toward supporting their women.
Words, Maddy White