Your choice: Women's views on the referendum

Ahead of this Friday's referendum on the Eighth Amendment, women from both sides of the debate tell us how they will be voting and why
Your choice: Women's views on the referendum
Dr Louise Crowley, School of Law, UCC; Senator Colette Kelleher; Alison O'Connor, Journalist, and Professor Louise Kenny, Executive Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Faculty of Health and Life Science at University of Liverpool, at the UCC Staff Together for Yes information evening at University College Cork.Picture: Michael O'Sullivan/OSM Photo
Martha Halbert
Martha Halbert

Martha Halbert, community worker and mum, from Glenville

For as long as I have been aware of the issues around women’s rights in Ireland, I have felt a deep unease knowing that choice was not a luxury afforded to Irish women in difficult situations.

In 1991, the girl at the centre of the X case was only six years my senior when her tragedy was crystallised into Irish case law, and reminded all Irish women how the significance of their life stacked up next to that of a foetus.

As a student of constitutional law, I prickled at the thought that lawyers searched for a ‘man of straw’ plaintiff to bring cases on availability of contraception before our courts. A woman who, quite literally, would be at risk of death if she were to become pregnant again.

When I found out, much later in my life, that when my parents were given a diagnosis of anencephaly for my younger sister, they were simply sent home to cope with the situation as well as they could, I was devastated for them. For them to have been left so utterly alone at such a time, and not presented with any options, is unfathomable to me.

Still now, in order to fight our corner, Yes campaigners must share their most harrowing experiences in order to humanise their cause.

Do I believe victims of rape or incest should be able to access abortion care? Absolutely. Do I believe that parents facing a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormalities should determine the best way forward for their family? Of course.

But as strongly as this, I feel that women who become pregnant in a circumstance or a time that is not right, not safe or not manageable should not be forced to be a vessel to carry forward that pregnancy.

My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is the love and light of my life. She is witty and strong and rambunctious and loving. My husband and I can’t imagine our lives without her filling our every day with all the emotions and activities a toddler can muster. We know we are fortunate beyond measure. Fortunate too, because my pregnancy was planned and straightforward. Our families and friends rallied around and our relationship was committed and healthy. And yet it has still been the most challenging experience of my life.

Pregnancy, birth and parenting are anxiety-ridden and exhausting. I wonder how, as a society, we can consider it acceptable to effectively force women, for whom pregnancy and parenthood is unequivocally not the right thing, either to shoulder the immense pressure of the task, or to leave the country to access healthcare. Where is the humanity in this status quo?

My husband and I will vote Yes on May 25 in the hope that the result will be a step towards recognising the unique support women and families need from the state, our society and our healthcare system.

I will vote Yes, hoping with every fibre of my being that neither I nor my darling daughter will ever have cause to seek out abortion care, but that if that was what we desperately needed, we would be cared for at home.

Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Louise Kenny. Picture: Diane Cusack
Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Louise Kenny. Picture: Diane Cusack

Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Louise Kenny

I’m an obstetrician and gynaecologist specialising in the management of high-risk pregnancies. I have more than 25 years of clinical experience and I spent the last 12 years working in Ireland as a consultant obstetrician at Cork University Maternity Hospital.

Over two unseasonably warm and sunny days earlier this month, 400 or so of Britain and Ireland’s doctors who, like me, specialise in the management of high-risk pregnancies, attended a conference in Brighton. The British Maternal and Fetal Medicine Society (BMFMS) meeting is an annual opportunity to meet with colleagues and friends, to share medical and scientific research progress, discuss complicated medical dilemmas and to advance the care of maternal and fetal medicine.

Obstetrics, and the management of high-risk pregnancies in particular, has long been regarded as the ‘Cinderella discipline’ of medical research.

Here in Ireland, we punch above our weight, sporting the world-class Infant centre at UCC and the newly launched Perinatal Research Centre at UCD. The Irish contingent is always well represented at BMFMS. And yet, each year as Team Ireland board the plane to meet with our European colleagues, our pride is always tinged with a sense of shame.

As consultant obstetricians at the sharp end of clinical practice, we know what it is to diagnose a life limiting fetal abnormality and to tell the grief-stricken parents — your options are limited, all we can do is wait.

At the darkest hours of any mother’s life, we are unable to offer what our colleagues in Britain and elsewhere can. We provide information, the contact details of the hospitals where many of us trained and where we know our patients will be met with compassion and care. But under the 8th Amendment, we cannot fulfil the most basic requirement of good clinical practice. We cannot pick up the phone or send a letter to provide even the most basic of clinical details — we would face a custodial sentence. We are gagged and bound.

Our British colleagues understand this. Week in, week out, for the last 34 years, they have opened their underfunded, understaffed hospitals and clinics to Irish women shunned by their own country. Colleagues and friends to us, but strangers to our patients, they nevertheless care for them as if they were their own.

Last year, of the 3,265 Irish women who attended hospitals and clinics in the UK seeking termination of pregnancy, 61 women attended Liverpool Women’s Hospital, where I trained, with pregnancies complicated by either significant maternal medical illness or life-limiting fetal abnormalities. Some 61 Irish citizens, at a time of critical need, travelled to a foreign country for basic healthcare, approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), but denied to Irish women because of the Eighth Amendment.

Several of those 61 women were patients of mine. Since moving back to Ireland 12 years ago, I have cared for many women whose lives have been damaged, sometimes irreparably, by the 8th Amendment. I remember each and every one of them. I remember the sudden, sick, hollow feeling in my stomach when I turned on the ultrasound during a routine appointment and saw something that would change a woman’s life forever. Obstetrics is the best job in the world. It can also be the worst. There are no words to describe the feeling that accompanies the words “I’m so sorry, I have something to tell you”, but I’m certain that it is nothing to the utter despair felt by the mothers and fathers who hear those words spoken.

In the evening sunshine in Brighton, I met a colleague, an old friend from Liverpool who I trained with and who has been there for countless Irish women over the last three decades. When we first met, I was a very junior doctor from an Irish Catholic family, I was reticent about abortion and had everything to learn. For the last 12 years, he and his colleagues have been there for the women, the babies and the families that have been exported, on my watch, from Ireland because of the 8th Amendment. I cannot express my gratitude and I cannot hide my shame.

But this year, as we part, Team Ireland toast our colleagues with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. We will vote Yes on May 25 and hope that this will be the last year we export our most vulnerable citizens. Next year we will be able to take care of our own. (This article first appeared in The Irish Examiner)

Positive pregnancy test
Positive pregnancy test

Why I will vote yes - Anon

I am 53 now so I had just turned 18 when the 8th Amendment was inserted into our constitution in 1983. I don’t remember voting — I think I was away working in a London for the summer at the time. I do remember the awful scaremongering and misogynistic rhetoric leading up to the referendum and feeling uneasy.

I was a student at the time and like most young people, I was sexually active with my boyfriend. Hard to believe it now but we had little access to contraception and despite the fear of getting pregnant we still took risks and sometimes had unprotected sex. This was not unusual amongst my peers — we were just regular young adults. Unfortunately, aged 21 I did get pregnant — my boyfriend and I were upset but neither of us were in any way ready to have a baby and we decided to have an abortion. This being pre mobile phones or internet, it wasn’t that easy to make arrangements.

I remember queuing for a phone box with a fistful of 50p pieces, dialling a number in the UK that I had got from a friend of a friend who’d had an abortion earlier that year. It was a service for Irish women. A booking was made and we then had to arrange travel — pre-Ryanair days, it was really expensive.

I had to borrow money off my brother then pretend to my housemates to be heading off to Dublin for a couple of nights. I told nobody else. I was afraid of what might happen — abortion was totally taboo and I felt foolish and ashamed for being ‘caught out’. The procedure itself was OK — I was 7 weeks pregnant. I remember the overriding feeling afterwards was huge relief that it was over and I could get back to my studies and my normal everyday student life. I didn’t feel guilty or sad, I wasn’t traumatised — I simply had an unplanned pregnancy which I knew I couldn’t continue with. This was common in the 1980s. I knew many other young women who had ‘taken the boat’.

So now, when I hear anti-choice people say that young women will use abortion as contraception... it rankles. Why are they so judgemental of young women? Why are they considered not worthy of making a decision about their own bodies when faced with an unintentional pregnancy? Why must they be forced to travel or order abortion pills on the internet, risking their health and potential criminal conviction? The 8th Amendment didn’t prevent me from getting pregnant. It didn’t stop me from having an abortion, despite it being a criminal offence (the X case and resulting referendum allowing the right to travel didn’t happen until 1992). I wasn’t a ‘bad’ person. I wasn’t promiscuous. I made a mistake, I took a risk. I didn’t want to have an abortion — nobody does.

I think young women nowadays are far more responsible about contraception but they can still make mistakes or contraception can fail.

I have a 17-year-old daughter and hope that she never faces a crisis pregnancy, but if she did I’d want her to be able to make her decision about her body, her health and her future in her own country with her own doctor and the support of her family.

I’m voting Yes because I believe that all women will make the right decision for themselves. I believe Ireland is a compassionate, caring country and it’s time we looked after our women and girls here at home. No more shame, no more judgement — just trust and support, no matter what their decision.

Clara O’Brien, Charleville
Clara O’Brien, Charleville

Clara O’Brien, Charleville, Co. Cork

Care, compassion and protection. Without these, our society is blind. On May 25 the lives of thousands depend on how we vote. We are being asked by the Government to change our Constitution in a fundamental way: to completely remove the right to life of all children in the womb.

Why? Because Minister for Health Simon Harris want to pass a law that would make abortion completely unrestricted throughout the entire first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

His law will also make abortion largely unrestricted from 12 to 24 weeks in pregnancy because it will allow abortion on the vague ground of “risk to mental health”.

And Harris’s law will also make abortion up to birth legal in certain cases, for example where the child has a severe disability or where the “risk to mental health” is “immediate”.

Like everyone, I struggle when thinking of abortion in complex cases. It’s hard not to feel enormous sympathy for anyone caught up in circumstances of crisis. Yet this referendum is not about abortion in limited, rare, complex cases. It is about unrestricted abortion, abortion up to six months, and even abortion up to birth.

It asks this of us: to say that all children in the womb, no matter what stage of gestation, deserve absolutely no protection, no care, and no compassion. I just think that goes way, way too far. I can’t reconcile that position with what I felt when I looked at ultrasound scans of my own babies at 12 weeks. They were so obviously little persons with faces, arms, tummies, and legs. Since then I’ve also realised that they had beating hearts from three weeks after conception.

And yet they will have no legal protection if we vote to pass the referendum by having a majority Yes vote.

Why did the Government’s proposal have to be so extreme? I don’t buy the line that abortion is healthcare. Saying it should be legal is one thing, but saying that abortion is like getting a smear test or getting your tooth pulled is just ridiculous.

And while I admit to having been alarmed by all the talk of pregnant women dying, I’m no fool. I’m able to look up the statistics and Ireland does rank as one of the very safest countries in the world to give birth in. We’re safer than virtually every country with unrestricted abortion. And I know cases where doctors intervened to save the mum’s life even when it meant that the baby died as a result.

So I feel that Yes campaigners are exaggerating an awful lot, and I felt reassured by the recent statement by five former chairpersons of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. They confirmed that the 8th Amendment permits doctors to give all necessary treatment to pregnant women.

I think the referendum proposal is a mess, and it’s largely a mess of Minister Simon Harris’s own making. To deal with a small number of hard cases he’s proposing unrestricted abortion, abortion up to six months, and even abortion up to birth.

I’ve yet to hear him offer even a half decent explanation for this. So it’s just too extreme for me. I’m not going to help legalise abortion on demand. I’m voting No.

Mary Butler, Psychiatric Doctor, Freemount
Mary Butler, Psychiatric Doctor, Freemount

Mary Butler, Psychiatric Doctor, Freemount, Co. Cork

I have been a doctor for 11 years and spent much of that time working the field of psychiatry. I understand those of you who are in the middle ground when it comes to the upcoming referendum. I was in the middle myself for a long time.

I understand the confusion you feel when bombarded with what sound like valid arguments from two opposing sides. I understand the empathy you experience when you hear tragic stories of women whose babies are diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities.

I understand the equal empathy and sadness that is evoked by tales of women suffering with grief and regret following an abortion.

This is an emotional issue and when your emotions are pulled in both directions it is difficult to know where to make a stand.

In recent years I have given this issue a great deal of thought, both from a personal and professional perspective. My experiences and reflections have led me to move very definitely from the middle ground to the No side.

From a personal viewpoint, I have had children in recent years. Twins, a boy and a girl. I had my first ultrasound scan at 11 weeks. It was a 3D scan and I couldn’t believe the detail. There were four arms, four legs and two proper little faces. They were moving and kicking and bouncing around throughout the scan.

Following this, I could never be convinced that babies younger than 12 weeks are any less human than at 14 or 24 or 40 weeks.

From a medical perspective, I try to approach the issue from a more matter-of-fact place. And I still come to the clear conclusion that abortion is a devastating tragedy that can in no way be equated to ‘healthcare’.

Suicidal thinking is often cited as a reason that a woman may require an abortion. As doctors, we use the best available evidence to guide our treatment plans. There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that abortion is an appropriate treatment for suicidal ideation.

On the contrary, several international studies have shown that the risk of suicide in pregnancy is extremely low, while the suicidal risk increases significantly in the year following an abortion.

Abortion not only ends the lives of babies but can cause long-lasting mental health problems for many women. I have met numerous such women though my work, from an 18- year-old lady experiencing overwhelming anguish in the immediate aftermath of abortion, to a 60-year-old woman, for whom the root psychological cause of her years of recurrent depression, was the unresolved guilt and grief she carried for the babies she had lost following several abortions, under duress, in her teens. Abortion is not ‘healthcare’. It is certainly not ‘compassion’.

I love my work as a psychiatrist. It is a privilege to care for people who are experiencing mental health difficulties. I can never support a practice like abortion which inflicts such trauma and damage to the mental well-being of women.

Abortion does not solve psychological distress. It causes it.

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