Update: On Saturday, ahead of the official announcement that the 8th amendment would be overturned (exit polls show about 69 percent of constituents voted to repeal the abortion ban), Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar called the vote a “quite revolution.” Speaking to Irish broadcaster RTÉ, he said that country is united on the “landslide” decision and that the referendum “allows us as a nation to come of age.”
One evening in November of 2012, I left my office in Dublin City, Ireland, and walked quietly across the St. Stephen’s Green park to a sit-in protest at the gates of the country’s national Parliament. Days earlier, a 31-year-old Indian dentist named Savita Halappanavar had died of septic shock after miscarrying.
Shortly before her death, Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, and had been told that she would inevitably suffer a miscarriage, was denied an abortion. A midwife at the hospital in Galway, my hometown, told her that termination of the pregnancy, so long as there was a fetal heartbeat, was impossible, “because Ireland is a Catholic country.” Halappanavar’s husband told reporters that her death was “horrendous, barbaric, and inhuman.”
Abortion in the Republic of Ireland was effectively illegal then, and it is effectively illegal now. But the historic, once-in-a-generation referendum that took place on Friday has the potential to change that.
The Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution protects the right to life of the unborn in Ireland except in those limited circumstances when the mother’s life is deemed to be at sufficient risk. Even then, doctors and medical practitioners have been, in the absence of absolute clarity on timing and other variables, reluctant to make the call. If the amendment is repealed, the way is paved for legislative reform.
In theory, abortion is illegal and not available to Irish women. In practice, some 3,000 women leave the country each year to procure abortions in countries where it is lawful (the majority travel to England), typically at great expense and risk. On top of that, the use of unregulated abortion pills — ordered online and administered at home without medical advice or support — has, according to one leading provider, increased by roughly 50 percent so far this year.
Returning to Ireland this week after months of watching the campaigning from the United States, where I, as a dual-citizen, now live, has been as surreal as it has been moving. Never have I witnessed such energized public interest surrounding a vote, most remarkably and particularly in young people. Never, on a political question, has there been more street art, more pins on lapels, or more statement sweatshirts. Grafton Street in Dublin the night before the vote was lined with young canvassers. Social media is ablaze.
Nobody under the age of 53 in Ireland has had the opportunity to vote on abortion before, a fact that is palpable on the streets and on the airwaves. People who live overseas have been returning in droves to vote (many have been sharing their journeys on using the hashtag #HomeToVote). The counting of their votes, and everybody else’s, begins early Saturday morning.
Halappanavar’s death in late 2012 sharpened the national and international focus on the restrictive Irish regime, and put the issue of abortion firmly back on the political agenda. Since then, and especially over the past year, Irish women have bravely shared their stories of crisis pregnancy and often devastating loss, many relating experiences that took place on airplanes or in hotel rooms.
For a long time, Ireland has been forced to consider access to abortion through the prism of a number of very difficult and troubling legal cases. The women and girls at the center of them have been anonymized in case law, with the most high-profile examples being Miss X, Ms. Y, and Miss P.
Ms. Y was an asylum seeker who, upon arriving in Ireland, discovered she was pregnant as a result of a rape in her home country. Detained in Ireland and, as a result, barred from accessing abortion services, she became suicidal and went on a hunger strike. After a court order, Ms. Y was hydrated. The baby was delivered by C-section.
Miss P was pregnant when she was pronounced brain-dead, but was kept on life support against her family’s wishes while a fetal heartbeat remained. The High Court, because of a lawsuit filed by the family, eventually authorized doctors to suspend dramatic medical intervention that had been sustaining the pregnancy.
Miss X was a suicidal 14-year-old victim of rape, whom the Attorney General initially sought, on the basis of the Eighth Amendment, to stop from leaving the country to abort her pregnancy. At the Supreme Court in 1992, it was decided that “a real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life would constitute an exception to the ban. Miss X miscarried shortly after the judgment was handed down.
At the gates of Parliament buildings on that night almost six years ago, I spoke with a gathering of older women who told me they had brandished placards on the same street corners 20 years before, in favor of the right to information about abortion and the right to travel to access abortion, just after the X case.
Six years of contention and deadlock, for me, has felt like a lifetime. I cannot fathom 26 years, or 26 before that, or 26 before that.
In the last 10 days, I have had a greater number of generous and curious conversations on the subject of life and choice than in my life to date. But elections, we know, are tricky. It remains to be seen whether a marked outpouring of support for choice will be reflected in the ballot box.
Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon, supporters of repealing the amendment in Dublin laid bouquets of flowers and posted “I’ve voted” stickers around a mural of Savita Halappanavar’s smiling face.