“Not the first or the last bleeding women about to face a long trek home.” This was one of the tweets sent this month to the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, from a woman who was traveling abroad for an abortion.
The woman and a friend set up a Twitter account, @TwoWomenTravel, to live-tweet her experience as she flew from Ireland to England for an abortion that she could not obtain safely or legally in her own country. By documenting the dreary trip with photographs of bleak-looking places along the way, the women sought to highlight the hypocrisy of lawmakers. These politicians turn a blind eye to the thousands of Irish women who travel abroad for terminations while imposing a 14-year prison sentence on any woman who procures the same service at home.
Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion, known as the Eighth Amendment, grants a fetus the same right to life as the woman carrying it. Since the amendment was championed by Roman Catholic groups in the 1980s, successive Irish governments — despite probably fearing more for their re-election chances than for their mortal souls — have allowed the church to dictate the terms of the abortion debate.
That may now be changing. The outpouring of social media support for Two Women Travel is the latest indication that the public has moved a long way from the church’s “no abortion, no way, not ever” stance. And there are encouraging signs that at least some elected officials are ready to do the same.
In July, the taoiseach, as the prime minister is known in Ireland, faced renewed calls to step down after several of his cabinet ministers refused to follow his instructions to vote against an abortion bill. The bill that caused all the uproar was a modest proposal that would have allowed women to terminate their pregnancy when a fetus was shown to have fatal abnormalities.
The legislation was introduced by Mick Wallace, an independent member of the Dail, as Ireland’s lower house of Parliament is called, in response to the United Nations ruling in June that Ireland’s abortion ban violated a woman’s human rights. In its report, the United Nations found that the woman in question, Amanda Mellet, endured “intense physical and mental suffering” by being forced to choose between carrying a dying fetus or traveling abroad for a termination.
The Eighth Amendment’s guarantee of the unborn’s right to life prevents the enactment of any meaningful abortion legislation, so Mr. Wallace’s bill was essentially doomed. But several government ministers expressed frustration with what they saw as the taoiseach’s delaying tactics on the issue. (Mr. Kenny’s response to the United Nations ruling was to bring forward plans to convene a citizens’ assembly for further discussion.) And so a number of cabinet members revolted, and others used the floor debate on the bill to call for a referendum to repeal the troublesome amendment.
Polls have shown that a substantial majority of Irish voters have long since favored a repeal. And at least 59 of the Dail’s 158 deputies support holding a referendum. The clearest indicator that at least some elected officials are no longer prepared to defer to the church was the impassioned plea made during the debate by Kate O’Connell, a member of the Dail, or T.D., from the ruling conservative Fine Gael Party.
“It takes courage to stand up for what is right,” she said, “to listen to the medical experts and not some self-appointed moral police who will look down on the rest of us from their lofty perches, terrorizing T.D.s with threats of hellfire and eternal damnation in the hope that this will cause political paralysis. This is not going to work!”
The irony is that if the “self-appointed moral police” had not pushed so hard to forbid terminations in any circumstance — even in cases of rape or incest, exceptions that have been granted in predominantly Catholic countries like Poland and Mexico — there would probably not have been any sudden urgency among legislators to face up to the realities of abortion in Ireland.
The status quo has been shaken, however, by a litany of horror stories heard in court, from a series of women known only as Ms. A, Ms. B, Ms. C and so on, all the way to Ms. X and Ms. Y, involving rape and incest victims, suicidal asylum seekers, cancer patients and women who learn they have fatal fetal abnormalities, for whom traveling for an abortion was either too dangerous or expensive, or simply impossible. These cases represent only a tiny percentage of Irish abortions, but by exposing the inhumanity of our laws, they have slowly changed public opinion.
“There is undoubtedly a broad acceptance now in government and among the electorate that change has to happen,” Ailbhe Smyth, the convener of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, told me. “The only question to be decided is how much abortion Ireland is prepared to allow.”
The coalition is pushing for legislation based on the Canadian model, which allows abortion at any time, for any reason. While this may be a distant hope, a tally of polls conducted over years suggests that there is a trend of growing support for less restrictive laws. A recent poll commissioned by Amnesty International found that fully 94 percent of respondents supported allowing abortion in some circumstances, and nearly 40 percent were in favor of allowing women the freedom to choose.
What may ultimately tip the balance, as the Two Women Travel movement demonstrated, is that Irish women are no longer willing co-conspirators in a culture of secrecy that has helped sustain the laws that hurt them. Prominent journalists, actors, artists and ordinary women have begun shouting from the proverbial rooftops about their abortions. In the last year alone, women have demanded the public’s attention by chaining themselves to buildings, tweeting at the prime minister about their periods and even risking prison by publicly swallowing abortion pills that were delivered by drones.
At last, it seems that neither Irish voters nor elected officials are willing to look the other way. Women in Ireland may still face a long trek before they have full freedom of choice, but the direction of travel is clear.
Sadhbh Walshe, a journalist and former television writer, is working on a play about Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916.