It’s been a hard week for Irish women. Today – International Women’s Day – the country is on strike.
The strike is organised by pro-choice lobbyists seeking to repeal the eighth amendment. Introduced in 1983, the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution effectively bans abortion.
Women throughout Ireland have the opportunity to join the strike in any way that they can. Many are taking the day off work, joining local protests, or wearing black to show solidarity. The strike extends beyond Ireland too, with sister events organised in Berlin, New York, Glasgow, Manchester, and in other international cities.
Strikers are demanding that a referendum to repeal the eighth be called immediately.
Last year the government created a citizen’s assembly, something which has been declared a delay tactic by pro-choice activists. They argue that the move is merely the government’s way of avoiding direct responsibility for the urgent issue that is the eighth amendment. A video published by Strike 4 Repeal states: “Meanwhile people’s lives and health are in danger. Another person could die at any time. We can’t wait and we won’t wait.”
The citizen’s assembly sat for the fourth time this weekend, and for two days the 99 members heard from advocacy groups and speakers on both sides of the fence. The room was played interviews with women, of all ages and backgrounds, sharing their personal stories of abortion, crisis pregnancy, and the limits of the Irish healthcare system in treating pregnant women.
Listening to these firsthand experiences was harrowing and emotional. These stories served to highlight the multitude of difficult situations that pregnant women can find themselves in, the nuances of each case, and the varying degrees of pain felt by each individual.
Some themes were recurring. Several women spoke of the shame and stigma they had experienced. One spoke of the unbearable, suffocating shame she had brought upon herself and her family when she became pregnant out of wedlock in the 1970s. “I remember going into town one evening and standing on O’Connell Bridge, thinking it would be better if I was just dead.”
Another woman who recently travelled to Liverpool to access abortion said: “I felt like everybody knew. Even on the ferry, it felt like the staff knew. It’s that big taboo. It feels like you’re on the boat with a big shining cone alerting everyone to your shame. That you’re this dirty woman being shipped off like trash, like you don’t deserve to be looked after in your own country.”
These stories were particularly hard-hitting in light of the revelations from Tuam last Friday. A mass unmarked grave was discovered at the former site of Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours from 1922 to 1961, the home, like many others around the country, served as an institution for unmarried mothers – ‘fallen women’ – and their children.
In 2012, local historian Catherine Corless had noted that the whereabouts of 796 children who had died in the home during these years was unknown. Last week, archaeologists confirmed that ‘significant’ remains of infants aged from 35 weeks to 3 years had been found on site.
The abuse that took place at homes like Tuam has long been public knowledge. Women were forcibly separated from their children, with babies routinely handed over for adoption without their mothers’ consent This latest discovery is yet another in a long line of atrocities, signalling further neglect and abuse by the church and state.
What happened in Tuam is another reminder of Ireland’s horrific treatment of women. The country has always undervalued women’s interests and shown extreme contempt for female sexuality. That’s why mother and baby homes existed to begin with – in addition to Magdalene laundries, forced symphysiotomies, and more. Just as pro-life advocates today defend the interests of the fetus, many of the women forced to surrender their babies for adoption were told it was better for the child than being raised by a shameful, unmarried mother.
The common thread between what happened then and what is happening now is not the state protecting babies – it is the control of women and their bodies. It is the height of irony that the church, who claims that every life is sacred and whose influence prompted the eighth amendment, treated women and their real, living children so abominably. While the church’s grip on the country has relinquished in recent years, the eighth amendment persists. Its existence legitimises the state’s control of women, enabling the stigma surrounding them and their sexualities to continue.
The confirmation of what happened in Tuam throws into sharp relief the necessity of the Strike for Repeal. 12 women travel abroad for abortions every day. Irish women shouldn’t have to wait any longer for the freedom to make their own choices. It’s time to end the stigma. #Strike4Repeal