It is, then, finally, May 25th: the day Ireland votes on keeping, or repealing, the 8th Amendment, part of the constitution which equates the rights of a foetus with the rights of the woman carrying it, and which has made abortion illegal in Ireland since 1983. For the last 35 years, abortion has been illegal in Ireland for women who get pregnant after being raped. For women pregnant with babies so sick, they can’t survive pregnancy. For women pregnant by abusive men they wish to escape. And of course illegal for women who want to end pregnancies for a million other less dramatic, more prosaic reasons. Because they’re too young, or too poor; because they’re unsure, insecure, scared, sad, not ready to be a parent, not able. Because they’re not sure who the dad is. Because they just don’t want to be pregnant.
I can hardly believe this referendum is happening, let alone: today! It is history. It is the kind of thing feminism was made for: affecting palpable, measurable change, a legal acknowledging of how difficult it can be to wander around with all that rogue, wayward female biology ticking over in you.
I’m over-emotional. Terrified it won’t go the way I hope, with a yes vote, which will repeal the 8th. I’m glued to the news coverage, refreshing Twitter like a mad thing, nails bitten, sleep: interrupted. Cheering every time another celeb comes out as Yes (so far: Pink, Courtney Cox, Mark Hamill the original Luke Skywalker, Sharon Horgan, Annie Mac, Spencer Matthews, Hozier, Cillian Murphy and U2). I feel horrible about not having a vote. But I’m not Irish. What can you do?
If you do have a vote, please use it. Not for me; for all the women you know, have known, will know. And maybe a bit for me. Also, I know I’m supposed to say at this point: 'the important thing is to show up and put your cross somewhere.' But sod that. I’m going to say what I mean, which is: please, please, please… Vote Yes.
I’ve campaigned for Irish women to get access to abortion services for the last two years, ever since I fully understood their situation. Until that point, like a lot of British women, I’d been wilfully ignorant to the fact that Irish women were denied rights I took for granted. It was easier to forget, or ignore, or decide it wasn’t my business. But then Claire Hunt, a Grazia reader and abortion rights activist (and now: my friend), contacted me to tell me about the time she’d ‘travelled’ to end a pregnancy, made the trip that between nine and 12 Irish women and girls make, every single day, across the sea to England. 170,000 of them have ‘travelled’ since 1980. At a time of crisis, when they feel physically ill from pregnancy, and emotionally traumatised by their circumstances, these people organise and pay for ferries and flights, medical treatment, taxis and hotel-stays in strange cities - in secret, and shame. They make excuses to get off work. They lie to most of the people they know, about where they are going, and why.
Once I understood that this was a reality for women living barely 300 miles, and an hour and a half flight time from me: well. I couldn’t not get stuck in.
I learned a lot. I learned about women too poor to ‘travel’, who instead turn to illegally procuring the abortion pill – medical abortions – on-line, taking them without medical supervision, and at real risk from prosecution. I learned how differently Ireland perceives abortion, how shrouded in sadness and fear it is. I learned there’s no point spouting angry righteous rhetoric on abortion. Not if you hope to convince people unsure about abortion’s morality; people who don’t share my easy, entitled, English-feminist conviction that abortion ‘just isn’t wrong’.
Most of all, I learned that the abortion debate really only comes down to one thing. It’s not: do you believe that abortion is right, or wrong? It’s: do you believe abortion is real? Do you know it happens? Do you understand that women always have, and always will, on occasion, seek to end pregnancies? If so: do you think it would be better to allow them to do that safely, legally, at home, with medical supervision, and the full support of their family and friends? In a spirit of acceptance, compassion, care and love?
Ah… that’s got to be a Yes, hasn’t it