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Dublin: 16 °C Wednesday 19 September, 2018
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Two Irish women told us what it was like being students during the 1983 Referendum

One voted for, one voted against the Amendment. How will they vote this time?

DOES ANYONE ELSE feel that the referendum campaign has dragged on?

Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

At this stage, it’s as if chatter about May 25th has been going on for years.

And for some Irish citizens, it has.

Speaking with two Irish women, we hear their experiences of living through the 1983 referendum when they were young students, and how their life experiences has shaped their views today.

Sheila Ahern, from Dublin

Shelia said that her involvement with student politics in UCD in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and her experience as a volunteer with the Rape Crisis Center (which had been set up in 1979), led to her campaigning for the Anti-Amendment side in 1983.

During the referendum she was 24 years old, and believed passionately that:

this was a rights issue…let people choose what’s best for them. For me, it’s about respect and not imposing your own views on others.

Having grown-up in a tight-knit community in Cabra, Sheila felt that if she canvassed in her own area that she could persuade those who had known all her life to be more open minded. Instead, she was shocked by the viciousness of some responses to her stance.

Outside polling stations (at that time, you could canvass outside stations), she was spat at by those who had known her since she was a child.

She says that fortunately her parents supported her views and stood outside the polling station with her briefly in solidarity. However, some neighbours refused to speak to Sheila’s parents for years afterwards.

Despite the fact that Sheila hoped, wished, and canvassed, she didn’t think that the anti-amendment campaign would succeed in blocking the 8th amendment from becoming legal.

This time round, in 2018, she is enthused by the positive energy that overflows from the ‘yes’ campaign.

Sheila couldn’t resist becoming a part of ‘Voices For Choices’ after hearing them sing at an event. On Wednesday, Sheila was part of the first Angels For Choices demonstration outside maternity hospital.

Angels For Choices was set up as a response to the horrifically graphic images that have been displayed outside maternity hospitals.

When I spoke to Shelia on the phone, she was in the process of making the beautiful smock costumes. She said that an obstetrician came out to personally thank the group for protecting women visiting the hospital that day.

Sheila is more hopeful this time around that the 8th Amendment will be repealed.

Mairead Murphy from Kerry voted for the 8th Amendment in 1983 but this time will be voting Yes to Repeal

During the 1983 referendum, Mairead Murphy was 18 and with a keen interest in science, she dreamed of becoming a nurse. She remembers being told that there would be a talk on abortion in the school’s science department. Two Americans – a man and a woman – gave the talk:

[they showed us] hideous images of dismembered babies they said had been aborted. Some of my friends fainted in the corridors. I remember seeing two (friends) who had had passed out from the shock.

Source: Niall Carson

Around this time, the students were given little badges of tiny feet and asked to go round door to door. Mairead can’t remember if it to either give them or sell to people to encourage people to “vote to stop babies being killed”.

(So I) merrily trotted around doing this. I’d grown up in a safe and loving environment with my parents. I’d never had to to think what I would do if there was a crisis pregnancy

But an encounter with a neighbour gave Mairead a rude awakening. Her neighbour had a daughter with a missing limb, and her response to Mairead’s call was to very calmly say:

and what would you know about it?

Mairead felt uncomfortable with talking to women with more life experiences than herself, realising that:

it was not up to me, as an 18-year-old, naive girl, seeing the world through rose tinted glasses.

But now, 35 years later, Mairead has had a lot of life experience which has profoundly shaped her compassionate views on abortion. She is now a 53-year-old ex-nurse and a mother of 4 children who were

all planned and all wanted, and within the safety net of a loving relationship.

She couldn’t see herself having an abortion, but as a mother of 3 daughters, she thinks that the choice needs to be there, just in case her daughters need it. She believes that when women become pregnant in Ireland, their lives are put at risk because of the 8th amendment equates a full woman as equal to her foetus.

Now as a lactation consultant, Mairead supports mothers and babies every day.

As a lactaction consultant Mairead supports new mothers and babies. Particularly on her mind when she sees the anti-posters is one women she helped in the past. This new mother explained that her newborn was a ‘half twin’. During the pregnancy, one twin was taking the majority of the blood supply from the other. After a procedure to correct this in utero didn’t work, this expectant mother was faced with a choice: lose both twins or abort the twin who was weaker to give the stronger twin a chance to survive.

At the same time as establishing breastfeeding, this new mother also had a grave to visit.

This mother had nothing but pure love and anticipation and wanted both her babies to live, but she had to make a choice. If she didn’t she would have lost both her babies…what she must be going through (with the No posters) must be  horrible. It’s heartbreaking.

Mairead herself has lost two babies to miscarriage. Particularly on her mind at the moment is a child she miscarried 18 years ago this month. Outside the hospital where she was treated, she and her husband were greeted by graphic images which she found very distressing given their loss.

Her experience of giving birth in hospital also demonstrated to her that the 8th needs to go. After a bad experience with her first birth, she didn’t want to have an epidural.

For her second baby, she was in early labour and in no distress but went to the hospital early because:

the excitement was like waiting to see a friend at the train station. You get there early in case they arrive early too!

She arrived and asked for no intervention, but the nurse arrived with a drip for IV. She begged, ‘no, please don’t do this’, but was told

‘this could go on for days and days, do you want your baby to die?’  I put my hands up and I surrendered. Birth is about being a lover, not a fighter… I thought of my already born daughter to get me through the experience.

Her third and fourth babies she had in her own living room.

Savita and other women have been treated so terribly in their pregnancies and labour experiences. Mairead thinks that repealing the 8th will still mean that there is heartbreak, but a woman “will be able to stay close to home and be surrounded by family and friends and not have to be with strangers for whatever care she needs… Not everyone will do it. But the option should be there”.

Since time immoral, women have been seeking an abortion. If we’re going to help women do that with some degree of compassion we need to repeal. If we had abortion here, I thin there would be less abortions because there’s less panic (for the women).

She thinks that this time around that the electorate won’t vote a certain way because they are told to, but are stronger and better able to make up their own minds.

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