Life

Leona O'Neill: Stories of women's experiences in Ireland changed the abortion narrative

Abortion remains hugely emotive but Friday's vote to repeal the eighth amendment was the first bold move necessary to change the strict laws binding women's health care in Ireland, writes Leona O'Neill

A mural in Dublin of Savita Halappanavar, who died after being denied an abortion, after voters in the Republic voted to repeal the eighth amendment of the Constitution Picture: Niall Carson/PA
 

A QUIET revolution has taken place in Ireland over the last number of months and on Saturday the eighth amendment to the Constitution was repealed.

The amendment, which previously prohibited abortion, will now be replaced with a clause that states "Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy", signalling a momentous shift in Irish attitudes towards a hugely emotive issue.

If recent times have proved anything it’s that abortion remains a complex, sensitive and highly personal topic. But the campaign has also done something else, something extraordinary. It has moved mountains as regards mindsets in Ireland.

Above all the noise, above all the insult and offence-flinging, beyond the incessant social media trolling and street-corner shouting, the real voices of Ireland’s women spoke quietly about the stark, painful, heartbreaking reality of taking the decision to have an abortion. They brought life to what was previously looked on as a reasonably black and white issue by many who perhaps imagined that abortion was an action taken by women who just ‘wanted rid of their baby’.

Through their stories, the women of Ireland took us to the darkest recesses of their souls and in turn showed that the strict limitations of the eighth amendment could never account for the huge myriad of issues and life-or-death challenges that can and do occur in pregnancy.

One woman after another bravely took us on her own personal journey. She took us inside hospital consultant’s rooms where she was told her baby was going to die and she’d have to just wait it out.

She took us to her home where she was miscarrying a much wanted baby for weeks in agony and fear because she couldn’t get care, perhaps contracting deadly sepsis in the meantime.

A man holds redacted copy of of the Irish Constitution at Dublin Castle on Saturday after the Republic voted to change its abortion restrictions

She took us into her life where she faced daily domestic abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, homelessness or extreme poverty. She took us to her bathroom where she was taking dangerous abortion pills she had bought online. She took us to her living room where she knew that the unplanned pregnancy she had just discovered could leave her existing children orphans because of her own health issues.

She took us to a place where she couldn’t have treatment for cancer because of pregnancy. She took us to outside her doctor’s surgery where she reeled from the shock that she was pregnant by her rapist.

She took us to her home where she couldn’t feed or provide for her existing children. She took us to places we didn’t want to go, where we felt extremely uncomfortable, because perhaps we have no concept of it ourselves.

These past few weeks have left me extremely torn. Having an abortion is not something I’d consider myself, so that might put me in the pro-life category. But I am compassionate enough to realise that my circumstances and my experiences are vastly different to other women and should she decide to have or need an abortion, then she should have one. So that might put me in the pro-choice category.

Perhaps I am both pro-life and pro-choice. I don’t know what the term is for that. But what I do know is that no-one takes that journey unless they have to.

What I have realised over these past few weeks is that I never considered the intricacies of what the eighth amendment entailed, because it never impacted on me. I was lucky to meet a man I loved and have four healthy children with him, be surrounded by a loving family and be able to afford to put a roof over our heads and to feed my kids.

I realise these are not luxuries extended to every woman. I would never, ever judge another woman for having an abortion, or deny her the right to have one if she needed one.

I have empathy and understanding of women who have found themselves in the darkest of situations and on the most difficult of journeys. Choosing abortion is by no means an easy option for any woman. But women who are faced with that gut-wrenching choice need our support and love, not to find themselves alone and bleeding, in pain and in emotional turmoil in a strange country.

The matter needs discussed and I think that’s what repealing the eighth will now do. It is an uncomfortable discussion for many, but the reality is that many women across Ireland face tough, often unfathomable issues alien to many of us.

Life is not simple nor black and white, and neither is pregnancy. This first bold move was necessary to be able to change the strict laws binding women’s health care here.

In years gone by women in their darkest hour left home in silence, in secret, in shame and in sorrow. Now Ireland’s women, in times of unimaginable crisis, will be embraced with compassion and care at home.

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