What the Irish Referendum Means for Us Pro-Choice Campaigners Here at Home (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism & Gender and bakamoono.lk)

Image Courtesy Alastair Moore

I spent last Friday with one eye glued to the news, heart in mouth and palms sweating. I scrolled through videos and images of Irish women on the streets their voices and pain refusing to be silenced, feeling a sense of real solidarity. Online I saw feminist friends from across South Asia and the world expressing their solidarity in standing with Irish women as they lined up at the polls demanding the rights to decide what they can do with their own bodies. Interestingly I pen this not long after writing a 3-part series on the abortion debate in Sri Lanka. Perhaps that is why this moment in time felt so intensely close to home.

But let us take a step back for those who may not fully understand what this moment in Irish and indeed feminist history is and entails. On Friday, 25th May the citizens of The Republic of Ireland voted on a referendum that was held asking if the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution should be repealed – a simple yes or no vote. What is the Eighth Amendment? Passed in 1983, it was formulated largely to block any judicial invention of a constitutional right to abortion (such as in the famous Roe v. Wade case in the United States). The Amendment declared that the State acknowledged the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guaranteed in its laws to respect and, as far as practicable, to defend and vindicate that right i.e. meaning that it was almost impossible for women to obtain safe and legal abortion. This is not far off from Sri Lanka where allowing termination of pregnancy can only take place in the circumstance that the mother’s life is in danger as per Section 303 of the Penal Code of 1883. The penalty for causing a woman to miscarry (with or without her consent) is up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.
This led to stories of women suffering in avoidable circumstances, their lives crushed by the weight of this move. There is the case of a suicidal teenage asylum seeker who had been raped, was refused an abortion, and later forced to give birth by caesarean section. A brain-dead woman was kept on life support, against the wishes of her family, because she was pregnant, and medics were worried that by turning off the machines they would be breaching the law. This reminds me of Prof. Wilfred Perera (Past Patron and Past President of the Sri Lanka College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists Past President, Sri Lanka Medical Association) who penned a piece in support of the proposed reforms in Sri Lanka stating, “I am the oldest living obstetrician in the country and have seen a large number of women dying in our wards from severe bleeding and infection following unsafe illegal abortions, performed by quacks, with high charges, when these can be performed legally and safely at no cost in our hospitals"
In 2012, the death of Dr. Savita Halappanavar took place in Ireland – becoming the catalyst for the Irish referendum that took place almost 6 years later.  Savita at 31 was living Galway in 2012 and preparing for the birth of her first child. At 17 weeks pregnant, she went the hospital with back pain and doctors said she was having a miscarriage. Despite the doctors telling her the fetus would not survive, she was not given an abortion – resulting in septicemia and her death. While her story is not alone, she stood out as a symbol to many young Irish women who weren’t even born when the Amendment was passed. Thousands rallied outside the Irish Parliament in 2012 after news of her death, and marches and vigils followed. As the years went on, her name became a rallying cry. When the landslide vote in favor of repealing the amendment was announced on Saturday at Dublin Castle, Savita name was on the lips of supporters.
Closer to home, we all know the cases of women like Savita. Women who endure unnecessary suffering, trauma and are exploited all because the law deems us unable to decide what we can do with our own bodies. When the debate in Sri Lanka was at its height we all shared the stories, hoping to make the authorities realize what the impact of these laws are on women and girls. Our laws are so restrictive that the 13 year old girl who has been raped by her father is forced to carry her pregnancy and has no other choice in the eyes of the law. As we keep saying over and over again – this law does not and never will prevent women from seeking abortions. It will simply ensure that they put their health and lives at risk by seeking illegal, unregulated, and most often unsafe abortions. OB-GYN’s have shared publicly and repeatedly the harrowing stories of the suffering endured by women they have treated for post-abortion care. The concern for the possibility of life (even when medically women are told that life for the fetus is inviable and it will not survive) far outstrips that of the health and lives women and girls, to say nothing of their mental and emotional trauma.
In an era of 'Hashtag Activism' - one hashtag associated with the 'Yes' campaign stood out as a hashtag that chronicled real-life action being undertaken by those who believed the time was long past for such change. #HomeToVote was used by hundreds of Irish women across the world who made their way back to Ireland for the sole purpose of ensuring that they could vote in the Referendum. Twitter and Facebook flooded with powerful images and stories of many people filling airports and helping people facilitate the travel of strangers (financially or otherwise) to be in Ireland for this historic moment. Lynn Enright in a powerful piece explains this was about more than just voting. It was also in memory and in solidarity with the (at least) 150,000 women who have travelled from Ireland to seek abortions in the UK or in other parts of Europe since the Eighth Amendment was introduced. She writes, “the #HomeToVote initiative, the great swell of people crossing the Irish sea or the Atlantic or coming all the way from Australia or China or South Africa, feels so momentous. For decades, Irish women have been travelling to access healthcare that should have been available in their own country. They’ve told fibs when they were booking days off work or arranging childcare. They’ve shelled out hundreds of euros for last-minute flights. They’ve crouched uncomfortably in tiny airplane loos, their morning sickness made worse by the travel. They’ve acted as though they were going on a holiday when actually they were on their way to an abortion clinic in a faraway suburb”.
This is what really made me feel emotional and a sense of solidarity with these women. What I have found in women’s movements and feminism is exactly what Lynn describes. It is women coming together, across all the things that divide to stand together against a system that denies us our very humanity. Denies us our agency, autonomy, and the rights over own bodies. Makes criminals of us for asking very simply for a choice. We are not asking people to be forced to have abortions. We are not asking religions to re-write their scriptures. We are not asking for people to change what they believe. We are simple asking for the right to choose and if we chose abortion to be able to do so in a safe environment that does not put our health and lives in danger.
The Irish Referendum also gives us hope. Hope that the future and rights we fight for can someday be a reality for many reasons. If a country which identifies as primarily Catholic can see the dawning of this new era, then perhaps Sri Lanka where the Catholic Church has been one of the largest obstacles to preventing amendments to the existing law, still has hope. This is also not the first Referendum on the Amendment to be held on the topic – and while others have amended the boundaries of the Eighth Amendment, the crux still law strong until now. We are reminded that the fight to change laws that are so deeply rooted in patriarchal systems and beliefs do not go quietly into the good night, and we must keep fighting. And we will keep fighting drawing strength from our sisters across borders who have tasted the first fruits of victory and remind us that when we band together, change is not only possible it is inevitable. 
I am left with one question. While the Irish wave towards this moment was sparked off by Savita’s death – I wonder how many more women dying and suffering will we have to see before our own catalyst arrives?

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