A Pro-Choice Irish Writer Speaks To Pro-Lifers Ahead Of The Abortion Referendum

Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
This month, Ireland prepares to make a once-in-a-generation choice. A referendum to repeal the constitution’s eighth amendment, legalising abortion up to 12 weeks, will take place on 25th May after decades of debate.
The vote brings with it a great deal of pressure and emotional exhaustion, not least for those whose lives have been directly impacted by this law in the past. In online and offline life, debate has been by turns fraught, highly personal and, occasionally, outright venomous.
In the past I’ve written about this struggle from a perspective that was, and remains, committedly pro-choice, and which treated abortion rights as a cultural issue. But the eighth amendment goes far beyond the cultural: it’s a question the people of Ireland, in particular its women, are invested in for professional, legal, ideological and health-related reasons, too.
With a broader view of the debate in mind, I spoke to a number of young Irish women – doctors, lawyers and activists preparing to vote for and against repealing the eighth – several weeks in advance of the long-awaited vote.
Before writing this piece I had never properly spoken to a pro-life activist. This might owe to the online bubble effect, or my social circle having fairly consistent left-wing views. There is also the possibility – one which looms over 'Yes' campaigners – that those with pro-life views have chosen to remain silent, and will speak with their votes. Consequently, corresponding by email with Ciara O’Rourke, of Students for Life, and Katie Ascough, of Our Future, provided an insight into how young Irish women can arrive at pro-life views.
Ciara O’Rourke is an activist with Students For Life, a group based at Trinity College, Dublin. The university has been a central site of referendum-related controversy, including the presence of highly graphic, large-scale banners showing pictures of aborted foetuses outside Trinity’s front gate, frequently bracketed on either side with further signs placed by pro-choice activists, reading "Warning, graphic images ahead".
Students For Life, however, do not approve of this tactic. O’Rourke explained: "The group who have come under fire for using graphic images are called the Irish Council for Bioethical Reform. They’re basically a fringe group – both the Save the 8th Campaign and the LoveBoth campaign have condemned their displays outside maternity hospitals. Our student group in Trinity have repeatedly asked them to stop, and I think the other campaigns have too, but they won’t."
While chairing Trinity’s Gender Equality Society, O’Rourke was surrounded by pro-choice activists. For a time she stayed silent rather than risk disagreement, but gradually began to express her pro-life views, and felt so guilty about initially remaining silent that she helped set up a pro-life campus group.
"What mainly won me over was learning more about embryological and foetal development," she explains, "but I was also very influenced by pro-choice philosophers like Peter Singer whose views are consistent, but have consequences that I think are abhorrent." (Known for his work on bioethics and animal rights, Singer argues that foetuses lack personhood as they are neither rational nor self-aware, and that newborn babies also lack the essential characteristics of personhood. He also supports voluntary euthanasia, is an outspoken atheist, and is, in general, a pro-lifer’s worst nightmare.) O’Rourke said: "Compared to that position, the 'human rights for all humans' one just seemed self-evidently better. It’s actually the position that a good number of the early feminist activists held too."
O’Rourke is not Catholic, and while she is an Irish citizen, three of her four grandparents are not Irish. She describes the referendum as a human rights issue: "I think you either accept that every human being has human rights, including the right to life, or you don’t: and if you don’t, there’s no consistent basis for just denying them to unborn children and no other humans." She is also concerned that the proposed legislation to replace the eighth will actually be interpreted very leniently. "A lot of people think the proposed changes here are much more restrictive than it looks like they really will be."
At present, the proposed legislation allows for terminations past 12 weeks if they are approved by two medical practitioners, one to be an obstetrician, and only in cases of emergency, threat to the life or serious threat to the health of the mother, in conditions likely to lead to the death of the foetus, and if the foetus is not viable (if viable, there will be an early delivery instead).
Photo by Szymon Barylski/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Katie Ascough is well known in Ireland, garnering attention following her election as president of the Student’s Union at UCD (University College Dublin) in March 2017. Ascough’s pro-life views clashed with those of the Union itself, and the issue came to a head with her decision to withdraw a student guide featuring advice on accessing abortions, leading to Ascough’s impeachment, further debate concerning free speech on college campuses, a pro-life award for Ascough and the unexpected involvement of a popular chain of burrito restaurants.
At present Ascough is involved with the LoveBoth campaign, and acts as spokesperson for Our Future, a pro-life campaign addressed to younger, undecided voters. Despite previous controversies, Ascough said that the Irish people had so far been receptive to the campaign. "We advocate for a respectful and fact-based debate and that seems to have resonated with a lot of people… Ireland is unique in the world in that we have one of the best records for maternal safety and we also have one of the lowest rates of abortion. Irish people are known to be loving, respectful, and welcoming, and I think supporting both mothers and babies in our country reflects that."
As with O’Rourke, Ascough compared the proposed replacement legislation unfavourably to that of England, Scotland and Wales. "At Our Future, we speak about the abortion culture that has developed in many countries that have wide-ranging abortion, by this we mean the normalisation of abortion. In Britain, we can see this normalisation when you look at the statistics. For every four babies that are born, one is aborted… These are perfectly healthy pregnancies that are ended because they are simply inconvenient. It is because abortion has become a part of British culture." Similarly, in Ireland she views the eighth as a cultural issue rather than a religious one: "At its core, abortion is a cultural issue because the way we view and treat the most vulnerable in our society says a lot about who we are as a society… If you remove the most fundamental human right — the right to life — then you are essentially creating a hierarchy where some lives matter more than others."
Then, of course, there is the other side of the debate. Anna McHugh is a GP trainee, and a member of Doctors for Repeal. She graduated five years ago, travelling in Australia before returning to work in rural Donegal: "It was only after I came back and started being part of women’s health in Ireland that my interest started to snowball. You’re exposed, more and more, to the differences in how pregnant women are treated here compared to in other developed countries."
This law impacts Irish doctors on a daily basis, policing their language and behaviour, and older members of Doctors for Repeal have been lobbying the Irish government since 1983, when Article 40.3.3, aka the Eighth Amendment, was first added to the constitution.

Even if it’s a crisis pregnancy, in a tragic situation like incest, sexual assault or fatal foetal anomaly, we have to give that woman the same advice as in a normal pregnancy

McHugh explained: "Even if it’s a crisis pregnancy, in a tragic situation like incest, sexual assault or fatal foetal anomaly, we have to give that woman the same advice as in a normal pregnancy."
Abortion rates have been shown to drop once a nation legalises abortion, and medical risk is minimised because women are able to seek advice and receive treatment with supervision. At present, however, doctors are faced with patients in distress who cannot legally disclose that they’re experiencing medical abortions (at present around three Irish women access abortion pills online every day, without medical supervision).
McHugh said: "This is happening. Abortion pills are today’s version of the backstreet abortion, and I can’t stand by and allow young women and their partners and young girls to be left there, petrified… I’m standing with my patients: that’s the reason I’m doing it."
Barrister Katie Dawson became a member of Lawyers for Choice after witnessing cases like Savita Halappanavar’s inspire a surge of public protest. "From a lawyer’s perspective, what we see are all the hard cases that come about because of just how constrained our abortion law is," she said. Lawyers have long denounced the eighth amendment as bad law. "In 1983 quite a lot of lawyers came out, high-profile people including Mary Robinson and the late Supreme Court Judge Adrian Hardiman. The late attorney general Peter Sutherland warned that it was going to lead to difficult cases. Sadly the subsequent years have proven his concerns to be correct."
Dawson mentions 2014’s PP case, where a pregnant and clinically braindead woman was kept on life support as an 'incubator' despite appeals from her family, and 1991’s X case, in which a 14-year-old girl who had been raped was denied the right to travel for an abortion. Irish abortion law currently ranks among the strictest in the world; "foetal right to life" is included in the constitutions of only a handful of countries, and within that small group, only the Philippines has similar wording to Ireland's in its constitution.
"It says 'equal', but what that actually means is that when a woman becomes pregnant, her ordinary legal rights are suspended," Dawson said. "The only absolute right she retains is to be still alive at the end of the pregnancy. She can be denied medical treatment against her consent if it might harm the foetus, can be denied cancer treatment, or orders can be made for her to be given a C-section against her consent. It’s hard for people who don’t find themselves in those situations to realise just how much this constrains a woman’s rights." An update is overdue, yet Irish citizens under the age of 53 have never had a say in this matter. Dawson said: "Voting for it (in 1983) likely came from a place of good intentions, but in the subsequent 34 years, the sad reality is that women have died because of the eighth amendment… It’s monumental, a once-in-a-generation vote."
Debate around the eighth amendment has long been characterised as an emotional issue, inspiring as many attempts at tone-policing as it has rallying calls to shout louder. But the issue is not emotional. It’s not nebulous, nor is it based on fluctuating moods and fashionable opinion. It’s a legal, medical and constitutional reality, one Irish women are forced to confront every time they count the days since their last period. The eighth amendment is and is not a cultural issue. It cuts to the heart of our national identity, but perhaps that identity needed dismantling in the first place.

Ireland has seen so much pain because of crazy fundamentalism. I just hope that this is the last of it

"Ireland has seen so much pain because of crazy fundamentalism," Sinead Mercier says. "I just hope that this is the last of it." An environmental activist and a law graduate working as a researcher in Dáil Éireann (the Irish house of parliament), Mercier is cofounder of the Dublin Eco-Feminist Coven, a group which has staged events to raise funds for pro-choice groups.
Mercier grew up in Carraroe, a coastal village near Galway along what is marketed to tourists as Ireland’s 'Wild Atlantic Way'. Contrary to claims that rural Ireland will hold back the vote to repeal, she has encountered great support on canvassing trips. "Even my local priest was supportive. He’s a liberation theologist. I’ve also met nuns who want a 'yes' vote, who have come back from countries where they have Catholicism but have abortion too."
It’s easy to forget that modern Ireland is a relatively young country, and that messaging around the eighth amendment as the mark of a 'Catholic country' is not as historical as it might seem. "Having a ban on abortion is framed as an 'Irish'’ thing," Mercier said, "but that has been part of the process of othering ourselves. It means embracing the same image others look down on us for, that of the backward, idiotic, Rome-controlled, hyper Catholic country left behind by the modern world. And now American conservative groups are using that language to make us keep the eighth; it’s that same fetishisation of women in the home, and of a country without abortion."
The role of far-right American funding in backing Irish pro-life groups (with even further-right ties) has long been documented, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to link with current pro-life ads targeting Irish social media users. There’s a kind of false Irishness at play here, forced upon us from outside – centuries ago, Ireland was, perhaps unexpectedly, perfectly okay with the idea of abortion. In Celtic times, Mercier pointed out, women held positions as religious leaders and warriors, until colonisation introduced an idea of women belonging in the home.
It’s hard to imagine things going back to the way they were before, when the referendum vote is over. The hope is only that Ireland will change for the better, and become more accountable for its troubled history. Following the marriage equality referendum of 2015, Mercier sees repealing the eighth as another step forward, one where we can atone for the mother and baby homes, the symphysiotomies done to women without their consent, and various other injustices done to Irish women, inspiring a new, self-created Ireland: "If you lift up any oppressed segment of your population, be that women, gay people, trans people, anyone at all, you only make your country stronger and a better place."

More from Global News

R29 Original Series