As voters face a referendum today to reform Ireland’s abortion laws, Tracy Ramsden speaks to the women fighting for their future
‘We cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions with a situation where women in crisis are risking their lives through the use of unregulated medicines,’ said Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar on announcing the Irish abortion referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment that currently outlaws abortion and carries a 14-year prison sentence for women who seek treatment. His words offered hope to a new generation of women fighting the abortion ban and their right to what they see as basic healthcare.
Varadkar was referring to the 11 women every day who, as a result of the abortion ban, are forced to make the journey from Ireland to mainland UK for safe, legal treatment. ‘This marks a shift in public opinion,’ says Hannah Little, 28, one of the founders of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign. ‘It feels like now is the time to right a wrong that has forced women to be exiled for too long.’
‘Nobody wants an abortion, it’s about needing it,’ says Michelle Linton, 34, from Kildare, who had a termination at 18 weeks pregnant when her son was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder, Zellweger syndrome, that meant his life expectancy was zero to six months. ‘At 16, I walked by a pro-life demo, read the leaflet in my lunch hour and decided I’d never have an abortion. Then, in 2012, I found myself in Liverpool Women’s Hospital, having made the decision to have a termination. It was the same month the news broke of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who had died in Galway after being denied an emergency abortion. It was a reminder of all the hidden women who had made this journey before me, and the tragic ones who couldn’t.’
‘It was a reminder of all the hidden women who had made this journey before me, and the tragic ones who couldn’t.’
Michelle had given birth twice before her abortion – once to her healthy, now seven-year-old son Calum, and before that, to her first-born, Evan, who was diagnosed with Zellweger syndrome and died aged 11 weeks. ‘We cuddled him and he took a big breath, but he never took another one. After Evan died, I hit rock bottom. So four years later, when I fell pregnant and got the same diagnosis, I knew I couldn’t survive going through with the pregnancy.’ Like many of her friends, Michelle will be voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the referendum in May to lift the abortion ban, but there is a generational divide, explains Michelle. ‘Some long-held religious views may never change.’
The feeling on the ground, especially in Dublin, is that the country is on the precipice of significant progress with marches and canvassing by local MPs – spearheaded predominantly by those under 35. But with the rise of right-wing populism around the world and the unexpected results of the US election and Brexit, there’s no room for complacency.
‘It is about having these awkward conversations in small towns and villages in rural Ireland, presenting the medical facts and being mindful that it’s still a sensitive issue,’ adds Little. ‘We’re also calling on the 40,000 Irish people who live overseas, but are eligible to return home to vote. If this doesn’t go our way, it’s heartbreaking to think it could be another 50 years before we get another say on this. Our time has to be now.’
For more information on #HomeToVote, visit londonirisharc.com