Ireland abortion referendum: I’m an Irish expat who flew home to vote to legalize abortion. It’s a thrilling moment.
I left Bucharest, Romania, where I currently live, at 4 am on May 19. By the time I landed in my hometown in County Kerry, on the southwest coast of Ireland, I was bleary-eyed and full of adrenaline. Years of campaigning from generations of Irish women fighting for safe, legal access to abortion was finally being put to a vote — it was exhilarating.
I’m a 24-year-old writer. When my partner and I learned the date for the abortion vote was confirmed, we set aside money and booked flights home. Ireland does not have a postal voting system, so Irish citizens living abroad must return to the country to vote. Irish citizens from all over the world have been flying home to make their voices heard this Friday, the day of the referendum vote.
Many of them are posting their journeys on social media with the hashtag #HomeToVote. Scrolling through the hundreds of posts alongside my own plane selfie on Twitter was incredibly heartening — it made me realize that Irish people all over the world wanted the same change as I did. Repeal felt possible.
The law in question is the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, added in 1983. It states: “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.” Essentially dictating that a fetus is as entitled to life as the woman who is carrying it, the Eighth Amendment has resulted in one of the most restrictive bans on abortion anywhere in the developed world. The only abortion that is legal — from conception onward — is one carried out when there is a “real and substantial” risk to the life of the woman.
The fact that abortion is currently illegal in Ireland does not mean that abortion does not happen there. It just means that the abortions that do happen are medically unsupervised, happen in secret, and leave a woman vulnerable, alone, and in danger of prosecution. The amendment has also created a situation where women are forced to travel abroad to seek an abortion — most frequently to the UK. Currently, roughly nine Irish women a day travel for the health care procedure they should be able to receive at home.
One of the most contentious issues in the current Irish abortion debate involves women whose fetuses have fatal abnormalities. Even though these fetuses have no chance of survival, the law forbids women from ending these pregnancies. As a result, women are forced to carry to term and travel to the UK to have the birth induced — sometimes receiving their remains in a bag in the post upon their return to Ireland.
The catalyst for the current debate was the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Halappanavar died from septic miscarriage after she was denied an abortion. She wanted to terminate the pregnancy to prevent the risk of infection if she allowed the miscarriage — which was inevitable — to occur naturally. Her death shocked the nation and finally put the excesses of the Eighth Amendment back on the political agenda after almost 30 years.
Irish citizens flew from all over the world to vote on same-sex marriage in 2015. It worked.
Going home to vote on such an important law was something I knew I had to do. In 2015, the referendum to legalize same-sex marriage saw a similar push to bring Irish emigrants home to vote. Thousands of mostly young, progressive Irish citizens returned home to have their say. We held our breath, but when the final results were called — it passed 62 to 38 percent — it made other landmark reforms seem possible, even in this socially conservative country. The next step in forging a fairer Ireland for all its citizens will be in repealing the Eighth Amendment.
Arriving at the Dublin airport this week was deeply moving. It suddenly all felt very real — including the overwhelming fear that the referendum would not pass. On the bus journey from Dublin to Tralee in Kerry, I felt exhausted and anxious about the coming days. As the bus made its way from motorways to rural roads, grim posters championing a “no repeal” vote were unavoidable. The graphic images of dead fetuses and half-truth slogans on these signs filled me with dread.
But back in my hometown, I felt something different. Walking down the main street and making eye contact with people wearing the black sweaters emblazoned with the word “Repeal” that have come to symbolize this movement was incredibly moving. My rural town leans conservative Catholic, so knowing other “yes” voters are out there is reaffirming, even when everything else feels in limbo.
When I go to my polling station tomorrow, with three generations of my family, I will be part of something that could change the course of how women are treated in Ireland forever. If the Eighth Amendment is repealed, I would feel proud to move back to Ireland — something I would be very ambivalent about under the current law, where I lived in fear of an accidental pregnancy. A successful vote would mean that no more women will needlessly lose their lives because of an inflexible, dogmatically religious law that has no place in modern Ireland.
Emma Flynn is an Irish writer currently based in Romania. She writes about culture, books, and lifestyle. She also writes fiction and is working on her first book. Find her on Twitter at @mormonhorse.