ON FRIDAY MORNING, I woke in my childhood bedroom in Waterford before embarking on a familiar journey: the two-minute walk to my primary school. Since I turned eighteen, I have cast several votes there. In local elections, general elections, and referendums.
The vote to repeal the eighth amendment was different, however. More urgent, more personal. For me, it represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to right an injustice that had gone uncorrected and unspoken about for far too long.
As I walked through the front door, I was overcome with a wave of nostalgia. After all, this was the school where I had spent eight of my most formative years. Where I progressed from junior infants to pre-adolescence with the same twenty-nine girls by my side.
Twenty-nine individuals who have forged their own paths and lived their own lives since. Some live at home, some live abroad. Some are single, some are married. Some have children of their own, some have surely had crisis pregnancies.
Growing up as a girl in Ireland meant growing up with the weight of the eighth amendment on your shoulders. Even if we weren’t schooled on the technicalities of the law, we were all too aware of its implications. Get pregnant and you have two options: have the baby or go to England.
As teenagers, the fabled journey to England inspired dark, euphemistic jokes. Comments about ‘getting the ferry’ accompanied by winks and nudges, barely disguising the underlying fear that any one of us could one day be forced to undertake this sad, lonely journey ourselves. We may have spoken about abortion, but never in a mature, open way. Instead, we gossiped and spoke in riddles like the adults around us.
Schools didn’t help in this regard. Instead of educating us as to what an abortion was or why women might access one, we were treated to sensationalist propaganda. My own school showed us The Silent Scream, a horribly graphic anti-abortion video dating from the 1980s. How suffocating it must have been for the students who had had abortions.
Thankfully, the conversation around abortion evolved in recent years. For the first time in my lifetime, I heard stories from a tiny fraction of the 200,000 women who had terminated their pregnancies since 1983. Each had their own stories and individual set of circumstances. Many were ordinary and reminiscent of others I’d heard about in passing. Others revealed new horrors I had never previously considered. I had always been pro-choice, but these stories nonetheless opened my eyes and reinforced my stance.
I wasn’t the only one affected by these testimonies. People of all ages, backgrounds and creeds listened to these women. They realised that our draconian laws had caused nothing but untold distress over the years. They were ashamed of the country’s treatment of Ms Y, Miss P and Savita. They knew it was time for Ireland to stop treating its women like second class citizens. On Friday, they turned out in their droves and voted by a two to one majority to repeal the eighth amendment.
We had been told to exercise caution and temper our optimism in the wake of Trump and Brexit. How sweet it was then to be proven wrong by the results of the Irish Times exit poll on Friday night. For the first time since the marriage equality referendum, I felt proud of my country and its citizens.
Afterwards, I thought about going into the polling booth that morning in what had been my classroom twenty years earlier. On my way in, I passed little coat hangers bearing the names of their current occupiers. Ava, Ella, Wiktoria, and so on. I thought about what this result would mean for them.
All going well, they will grow up in a more humane and decent Ireland than the one we have known. The concept of ‘going to England’ and talk of fourteen years will be alien to them. Instead, they will grow up feeling empowered and secure in the knowledge that they can make their own decisions with the support of their doctors and loved ones. They will grow up knowing that this country has their back in their hour of need.
The repeal of the eighth amendment may be too late for many women, but we are making amends for past wrongs and freeing ourselves from the shackles of oppression. We are doing right by the Avas, Ellas and Wiktorias of the world. If that’s not something to be proud of, I don’t know what is.
So, thank you Ireland. From the bottom of my heart. You did good.
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