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Irish Abortion Vote May Lead to Birth of a New Era

You see, we knew them. Or at least heard of them. Growing up in Ireland, the term taking the boat normally applied to young men, myself included, choosing the sea crossing, from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead to seek work in Britain, before the advent of cheap flights. But when applied to women, it was a code for having an abortion. Men, like me in their 20’s in the early eighties, would hear whispers, rumors, at the hurling, Gaelic football, soccer or rugby match or in the pub on a Saturday night.

Parents of the women were often in the dark, the women opting to keep their pregnancy, boat trip and abortion a secret. They feared they would be doubly ostracized for the pregnancy and abortion. A heavy social price would be paid. They might say they were taking a few days off work, going over to England to see a friend, check on possible jobs or do a bit of shopping, a lexicon of code. When the women returned, they were the walking wounded, unable to tell of their trauma. “You had a good time in England, Mary, did some shopping, I hear.”

There was near political unanimity that abortion was wrong and should be illegal in the 1980’s. In 1983, the eighth amendment to the constitution was passed copper-fastening this.

The amendment granted Irish citizenship to an embryo at conception, and came about after a referendum that year backed by 67 percent of voters. It created a legal quandary even in the narrow circumstances where termination was allowed, when a pregnancy would result in the woman’s death.

And so we exported our young men and women, as they looked for work and opportunities elsewhere and we exported our shame. We were hypocrites. Since 1983 more than 200,000 women have taken the boat from the island of Ireland. Ireland neglected the most vulnerable in society.

(William Murphy/Flickr)

In the 1980’s when the economy was bleak, our children were being brutalized in religious institutions and our women were thrown onto a scrapheap of indifference we failed in a fundamental duty of care to the most vulnerable.

I left Ireland in the mid-eighties. Few countries have changed as much in the thirty or so years since then. We have a gay Taoiseach of Indian ethnicity. Divorce has been legislated for. There is a peace process in the North. The economy had boom years before the crash and is now recovering. Property prices in Dublin match London. Single motherhood is an accepted status. The Church has lost much of its power. The hi-tech sector is a global leader. Marriage equality has been legislated for. Drug-gang violence makes the headlines on almost a daily basis. And people rush to work in the morning drinking take-away latte from disposable cups.

The electorate will be asked, in late May, if they want to repeal or retain the amendment. If repeal wins the government will draft legislation for unrestricted access to terminations up to 12 weeks.

It will be a vicious campaign. This is Catholic Ireland’s last stand and divisions between the major cities and the more conservative rural areas will be highlighted. Families and friends will fall out. Opinion polls suggest those backing repeal will probably win. It may well be that the lexicon of code will be replaced by unambiguous legislation giving women the right to decide about their own bodies.