On 25 May 2018, a referendum will be held to determine whether the 8th Amendment of the Irish constitution should be repealed; to determine whether women will have unlimited access to their bodies or not. In 1983, it was decided via national vote that there would be an equal right to life for woman and unborn in legal terms. Prediction polls suggest that the amendment will be overturned, but as some will undoubtedly tick ‘No’ on their ballot paper, we need to question why abortion is still a taboo topic in Irish culture.
The most obvious pointer is Ireland’s connection with Catholicism – a faith that 78.6% of its Christian community follow. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (a formal document outlining its doctrine), ‘life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes’ which means that sex cells are considered sacred as soon as they are fertilised. It isn’t hard to see why Catholics are going to have a very narrow view of reproductive rights if this is the language they are competing with – especially when its coupled with political rhetoric as it was in 1983 and is today.
The problem with this translating legislatively into equality for the born and the unborn is that a woman’s worth is drastically undermined by reducing her to the same status as something she half-created. If we’re talking about an equal right to life, how is it justifiable to reduce a female to a zygote? Currently, a woman could face a maximum of 14 years for having an abortion in Ireland if the decision is made without the pregnancy being a threat to the mother’s life – which kindly includes ‘suicidal tendencies’. To add in a quick comparison to English and Welsh law, a life sentence is 15 years before a prisoner is eligible for parole which essentially situates women who abort their pregnancies on the same level as fatal criminals. This is a gendered crime, despite ‘conception’ being an act of woman and man, only women face punishment which also brings into question why do men get to vote on this issue? Would it be undemocratic to exclude them, or an act of fairness after the years of undue discrimination women have faced?
Western Europe is fortunate enough to have advanced health care systems. Therefore the pro-life campaign cannot encompass the argument that abortions pose a substantial risk to a woman’s physical wellbeing anymore. What needs to be emphasised and circulated in Ireland is that abortion is not a decision that is made lightly – nobody wants to be in a situation where they have to make that choice, so judgement should not be placed on what an individual’s response is. This vote does not mean Irish citizens have to detach from their religion, but it asks them to understand that not everything is as black and white as the bible, and women deserve the chance to design their own lives.