As we prepare to vote tomorrow, I think it’s important to reflect on what this referendum is and is not about.
This referendum is not about whether Ireland has abortion. It does. Every month at least nine women leave Galway to travel to the UK and many others order what they hope are abortion pills online and take them alone in bedrooms or bathrooms.
This referendum is not about later abortions. In fact, right now, Irish women have abortions later than other women, because they have to save money and travel.
This referendum is not about more abortions. In fact recent evidence from the Netherlands and Portugal show that when a country opens its laws in this area, it leads to less crisis pregnancies and less terminations, particularly when accompanied by sex education and contraception.
I believe this referendum is really about choosing safety and support over fear and secrecy.
Support means breaking the silence. The first early weeks of a crisis pregnancy should be a time when women can reach out, talk honestly to their families and doctors, access counselling, ask questions, get information. As a member of the Social Protection Committee, I produced a report on better supports for lone parents. If we repeal, some will choose not to terminate because they can openly discuss those options. Groups representing lone parents are calling for a Yes vote.
I have friends who are passionately pro-life and will still vote Yes, because they want to do the real work of support and realise that can’t happen under the 8th. Because where there’s a threat, women can’t talk.
Crucially, those early weeks need to be a time when women or girls can report rape or abuse without fearing that they might themselves end up on trial or be forced to carry a pregnancy to full term. Because under the 8th amendment even a twelve year old child cannot access a termination unless she is at the point of death.
This vote is about safety. 1,500 doctors have called for repeal and obstetricians have described how the 8th amendment forces them into awful calculations about what might be considered a “substantial” risk to a woman’s life, “Is it 20%, 50% or 60%”. Doctors are often placed in the perverse situation of waiting until things get worse. This was the case with Savita. Her parents have issued a powerful call for a yes vote and the report into her death describes clearly how because of the ‘legal’ concerns associated with the 8th amendment, she was not given a termination at the early stage when she first needed and sought it.
Just last month, another inquiry into the death of another pregnant migrant woman highlighted a five week delay while she waited for a visa to travel from Ireland to the UK. Women with a disability have higher risk of maternal mortality and, like migrants, can face logistical obstacles if they want to travel. Many disability advocacy groups are actively calling for a Yes vote.
Other women have had essential treatment for cancer, heart disease, brain tumors or other conditions denied or delayed because they are pregnant in Ireland. And when the risk is not death but serious illness or injury, there is nothing doctors can do.
The legislation being proposed around access to termination after 12 weeks is far stricter then that in the UK, but it is humane. Terminations will only be allowed in fatal foetal situations or when a woman faces loss of life or serious damage to her health, as determined by two specialist doctors and checked against a number of criteria, including a unique test to prevent terminations wherever there is foetal viability, usually after 23 weeks. Later terminations will only be allowed in the same emergency situations as currently allowed.
Some have been cruelly dismissive about mental illness but I believe most understand its seriousness. One woman wrote to me about how after years of struggle she managed to stabilize on anti-psychotic medication and rebuild a relationship with her child. She can’t take that medication if she becames pregnant again.
The vast majority of those seeking a termination are already loving parents. Some are making a hard decisions because they want to be well enough to able to care for the children they have. Others long for children and are instead visited with tragedy.
It is important to be very clear, unless we repeal the 8th amendment, there is absolutely nothing I as a legislator can to help women in situations of rape, incest or fatal foetal diagnosis, no matter how my heart might break for them.
Women in Ireland are making difficult decisions every day, we need to support them not silence them. Let’s talk to each other and trust each other. Please vote YES this Friday May 25.