Thirty-five years after it was placed into the Irish Constitution, the electorate voted for the Eighth Amendment to be repealed and for provision be made for the regulation of termination of pregnancy. Ireland’s law on abortion was among the strictest in Europe and the world.
The 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution was signed into law in the same year I was born, 1983. Thankfully, I have outlived it. Even before the 8th, Irish Constitution has occupied an uneasy ground between a progressive framework for a 20th century Western democracy, and an archaic cementation of Catholic ideology in the heart of Irish law. This religious dimension is most clearly articulated in the Constitution’s treatment of women – De Valera’s comely maidens, consigned by the Constitution to the role of homemaker and child rarer. Nevertheless, the 8th represented a stark shift in the legal status of Irish women. Although abortion was already illegal in Ireland, anti-choice groups and the Catholic right were concerned that judicial rulings had the capacity to render abortion legal in a similar way to the legalisation, via judicial ruling, of contraception. Their solution was to enshrine the criminalisation of abortion in the Irish Constitution, thereby insulating the issue from judicial challenge.
In practical terms, the 8th means that Irish women have been denied safe abortion in Ireland under any circumstances, including rape or if bringing the pregnancy to term poses a risk to the life of the mother.
Passed by a two-thirds majority, the 8th endowed a foetus with a right to life equal to that of the women carrying it: The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
In practical terms, the 8th means that Irish women have been denied safe abortion in Ireland under any circumstances, including rape or if bringing the pregnancy to term poses a risk to the life of the mother. So called “Hard Cases’ have abounded over the last 35 years, culminating in 2012 with the death of Savita Halappanavar. In Savita’s case, despite doctors acknowledging that her child had no possibility of surviving, and carrying the pregnancy to term posed an immediate threat to Savita’s life, a termination could not be provided. The result, a health 31-year-old women died as a direct consequence of the 8th. This spurred a new generation of Irish women to push for change. Since 2012 we have seen parliamentary debate, citizen and judicial review, and finally a referendum on repealing the 8th. Yesterday voters overwhelmingly endorsed calls to repeal the 8th and guarantee safe and legal abortion in Ireland.
This is a cause for celebration, and an indication of the sea change happening in Irish society over the last few decades. Celebration, however, should be tempered with an air of caution. Repealing the 8th is the start of the fight for Women’s rights, and a progressive Irish society. The cultural values and norms that created a context in which the 8th was possible is still alive and kicking, and increasingly supported by US anti-choice groups. Indeed, the #savethe8th campaign’s concession statement declared a commitment to oppose legislation, picket clinics, and refuse to accept that abortion is not ‘wrong’. In other words, the law will change, but attempts to attack, shame and intimidate women who chose not bring a pregnancy to term look likely to intensify. Taking their cues from US based groups, the anti-choice movement will, undoubtedly be more visible, vocal, and antagonistic in the aftermath of defeat. Protecting vulnerable women from this, is now the primary task of the Repeal movement.
The first step to tackling the anti-choice movement lies in understanding the relationship between religion, politics, and sexuality. In the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality he explores the historical incorporation of sexual repression in political power. For Foucault, the repression of sexuality was designed to cultivate the idea that sex was for the sole purpose of procreation. In turn, sexualities that deviated from the norm of heterosexual procreation were ascribed the label of perversions: something to be punished for and ashamed of. Foucault explains that this emphasis on presenting sex as a privilege of heterosexual monogamous married couples, helped political authorities regulate and control societies through the exercise of religio-moral authority. This, Foucault argues, has led to a repressive conception of sex and sexuality: “The question I would like to pose is not, Why are we repressed? but rather, Why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment… that we are repressed? By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated? What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?”
In an Irish context, this silencing and shaming of non-procreative sex is inexorably linked to the fusion between political power and the Catholic Church in post-independence Ireland. In the aftermath of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, political tensions afforded the Catholic Church with a decisive voice in ordering the new Republic. Part of this new ordering was a reemphasis on regulating sexuality, and demarcating Women’s role in society. It is within this context that the Irish Constitution was created, and why it emphasises a conception of women as non-sexualised homemakers. More problematically, Irish religio-political authority, during this era, constructed an ideal of sex and sexuality in which sexual pleasure outside the bounds of procreation (particularly female sexual pleasure) was viewed as the most egregious of sins. In time this socio-cultural frame for understanding sexuality enabled the most disgusting repressions of women: The Magdalene Laundries, the Church’s sale of children, children’s bodies buried in septic tanks. Society accepted this abhorrent treatment of young women because its moral framework for understanding sex and sexuality was dictated by the Church’s belief that deviation from the norm of marital procreation demanded punishment.
Repealing the 8th goes a long way toward dismantling this socio-cultural infrastructure of shame
We can trace a line directly from the Laundries to the #savethe8th campaign. Irish women have abortions regardless of the law. The right to travel for termination was legally granted in the 1990s. #savethe8th is not about preventing Irish women from having abortions. Rather, it is about maintaining the stigma and status of shame for Irish women who chose not to carry their pregnancy to term. Irish society has changed a lot in the last 50-60 years. Irish women have, to a certain extent, been empowered to explore and embody their sexuality. However, the 8th maintained a fundamental link to the older order of shame and punishment. If you conceive outside marriage, you won’t be shipped to the Laundries, but you will be punished by carrying the ‘shame’ of your ill-conceived child for the rest of your life. Your community will know what you did, and especially in smaller rural communities, will treat you with the requisite disdain. Your other option is secretly travel to the UK for a termination, knowing that you are a criminal, and that this is your punishment for pursuing sexual pleasure. The underlying thread is that in removing the 8th, you water down the ideals of culpability and repentance espoused, in a rather warped way, by anti-abortionists. In other words, women are given the choice to have sex with whomever they want, and don’t have the face public or private shaming.
Repealing the 8th goes a long way toward dismantling this socio-cultural infrastructure of shame. In fact, a major contribution to this victory has been the brave women who have told their heartbreaking stories of what it means to travel for a termination. No longer allowing themselves to be depicted as harlot archetypes, women presented themselves as real people, who have experienced real trauma at the hands of a profoundly unjust law. These are the real heroes of the Repeal campaign. Women, who despite suffering, in some cases decades of, trauma and enforced shame, were courageous enough to show Irish people what a woman who choses not carry a pregnancy to term looks like. They look like your friends, family, people you admire and respect. In seeing this, the majority of Irish people have voted to stop the punishment.
The referendum results tell us that the majority of Ireland’s young people will not accept that shaming women for enjoying their sexuality, or punishing them for being abused, or controlling their reproductive functions, is the right way for a society to behave
Yet, this is exactly why repealing the 8th is not the end. The #savethe8th movement, and its international backers are determined that to continue the shaming and punishment of the most vulnerable women. Their declaration today is a reaffirmation that a change in the law does not necessarily mean a change in how Ireland should view sex, sexuality, and women. Their post-referendum campaign will adopt all the trappings of the US anti-choice movement. It will attempt to shame and bully young women into self-repressing their sexuality, and compromising their ability to chose between carrying, or not carrying, a pregnancy to term. We, as people striving to progress as a community, and as human beings, cannot allow this to happen. The referendum results tell us that the majority of Ireland’s young people will not accept that shaming women for enjoying their sexuality, or punishing them for being abused, or controlling their reproductive functions, is the right way for a society to behave. Nevertheless, a significant minority will do everything in their power to make sure that women are abused, bullied and targeted for not carrying a pregnancy to term. This is the fight of our generation. The law has been repealed, Ireland’s understanding of sex, sexuality, and women remains in transition.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, Penguin, London, 1998.
 Ibid., p8-9.
 It is interesting to note that during the revolutionary era, Irish women played important roles in driving the independence movement forward both politically and militarily.
Picture: Workers Solidarity Movement, March 8, 2017 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/wsm_ireland/36257610393/