ABORTION, TRAVEL AND BREXIT
Political paralysis in London over its divorce terms may force us to deal with the last great remnant of post-colonial dependency – travelling for abortions
Independence means having your own state. But it is also a state of mind. There has been an independent Irish State for nearly a century, but whether Ireland has ever been psychologically independent is a whole other matter. It is a question, as it happens, that hovers over two of the biggest issues currently occupying Irish minds: Brexit and the abortion referendum. They may seem to be miles apart but underlying both is the extent to which Ireland is ready to be psychologically independent from Britain.
If we leave aside the existential questions of partition and Irish unity, abortion is arguably the last great remnant of post-colonial dependency. Where once the failure of Irish independence was symbolised by the emigrant crossing the Irish Sea on a cattle boat to get a job, now it is symbolised by the Irish woman crossing the Irish Sea on a Ryanair flight to terminate a pregnancy. When it comes to abortion, both those who want it and those who purport to despise it thank God for Mother England. Women depend on England to uphold their right to choose. Anti-abortionists depend on England to uphold their vision of a holy Catholic Ireland where such abominations are not permitted.
This is, indeed, the great irony of the Eighth Amendment. Those who pushed for it – and they were arguably the most successful pressure group in the history of the State – wanted to draw a vivid moral line between holy Ireland and pagan England. England had fallen before the forces of the permissive society and what they called (and still call in their own circles) “the contraceptive mentality”. But Ireland would not merely resist these forces. It would become a shining beacon of sanctity, an island of hope in a darkening and godless world.
In a way, this gesture was not all that far from the mentality of Brexit – a proud island nation withdrawing from a corrupted Europe and restoring its native purity. It was not so much Irexit as Iresexit – an Irish departure from European sexual modernity. The Constitution was to be reshaped as a legal chastity belt, locking Ireland into a permanent state of anti-continental continence.
The irony is that since the Eighth Amendment in fact did nothing to stop the sexual revolution in Ireland, it actually ended up effectively passing sovereignty over the reproductive rights of Irish women to Westminster – to the very pagan parliament that holy Ireland had been taught to fear and loathe. The Eighth Amendment proved – aptly enough – to be pregnant with further amendments, among them of course the 13th Amendment of 1992, enshrining the right to travel to have an abortion. It did not actually say “travel to England” but that is pretty much what it meant in practice.
It is a strange but telling fact that almost 200,000 more Irish people voted in 1992 to guarantee a woman’s right to have an abortion in pagan England than voted against her right to have an abortion in holy Ireland in 1983.
This “right to travel” is in effect a constitutional statement of desired dependency. It is post-colonial with not all that much “post” about it. When it comes to abortion, Britain is “the mainland”, England is the mother country and we are all West Brits. We are outright subjects, receiving laws for which we cannot vote. And this is our choice: Ireland chooses not to take responsibility for its citizens who are experiencing crisis pregnancies.
The Irish abortion regime has thus been dependent on something we have taken for granted: the Common Travel Area (CAT) between the two islands. The continued existence of the CAT is very likely after Brexit – but not certain. The political paralysis in London again raises the spectre of Britain being unable to agree any deal at all with Brussels and instead stumbling over the cliff with no parachute.
In that anarchic situation, what would happen to the CAT, an arrangement that requires the active consent of the EU as well as Dublin and London? And if the CAT were to go, the smooth, silent, largely anonymous exit strategy for Irish abortion would suddenly look a lot more problematic. It is a “don’t ask/don’t tell” strategy, heavily dependent on the ease of departure and return. Even if the worst-case scenario of migration barriers between the two islands is unlikely, just to contemplate its possibility it is to realise how much Ireland’s abortion regime has depended on the indulgence of our former overlords.
In this light, the coincidence of the referendum on the Eighth this month with the growing crisis in the lead-up to the Brexit summit in June is apt. If the Eighth is removed from the Constitution, it will be an important moment in the shift away from Irish psychological dependency on England. That shift has never been more important. Brexit is going to demand a profound re-imagining of Ireland’s place in the world, a final reckoning with the idea that that place is not merely as an island off Britain. It is as a European nation.
Getting over a colonial mind-set is a long process. You have to stop seeing yourself as just the obverse of whatever you imagine your oppressor to be. In our case, that means having to get rid once and for all of the ridiculous dichotomy of pagan England and holy Ireland. England’s abortion clinics are not dark satanic mills and the Ireland that sends women to them is not a beacon of sacred light. Both caricatures are childish fantasies unfit for a grown-up nation.
And you have to take responsibility for yourself. Ireland makes bad choices all the time but when we chose to be an independent state we lost the right to comfort ourselves by blaming them on the Brits. What we do is done by sinn féin – we ourselves. Our mothers and sisters, wives and girlfriends, friends and workmates, our female fellow citizens, are sinn féin too and they don’t cease to be “ourselves” when they make choices about their pregnancies. At the moment, when they face those dilemmas, we make them foreigners. They stop being Irish citizens and become subjects of Her Britannic Majesty.
An independent country can’t go on doing this forever. The habits of dependency have to be broken some time. The English comfort blanket is being torn off by Brexit. The evasions and ambiguities that allowed Ireland a very dependent kind of independence are no longer going to be available. England is choosing its own erratic path towards an unknowable destination. Ireland is not going to follow. But having nobody to follow is going to be psychologically hard.
Yet it will be just that little bit easier if we have shown ourselves capable of breaking our dependency on England at some of the most difficult, complex and intimate moments of our lives. We can bury once and for all the ludicrous notion that we are literally holier-than-thou. We can lay to rest the habit of wafting realities we do not wish to face across the Irish Sea for the English to deal with. These two moves would send us out into the turbulent post-Brexit world a little surer of who we really are and a little more confident that we can make our own way.
‘‘ The evasions and ambiguities that allowed Ireland a very dependent kind of independence are no longer going to be available
The referendum on May 25th will ask people their views on whether the Eighth Amendment should remain in the Constitution, or whether it should be removed to allow for the “regulation of the termination of pregnancy”.
At present, Article 40.3.3. – introduced by the Eighth Amendment in 1983 – gives the unborn and the mother an equal right to life.
The Referendum Commission has stressed this is the only decision people will be asked to make. However, much of the debate during the campaign has focused on the legislation that may follow a repeal vote.
If people vote Yes on May 25th, the law will remain the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act, which allows for terminations when a mother’s life is at risk, including from suicide. That will remain the law until any new legislation is passed.
The Government has proposed legislation allowing for access to terminations in certain circumstances in the event of a vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment. It has produced a “general scheme” of a Bill. This is an outline of a Bill, which would become the “Heads of a Bill”, which would be debated by the Dáil, Seanad and committee. If passed, the legislation would be accompanied by Medical Council guidelines.
The general scheme contains 22 headings – some of which are the subject of public debate between Yes and No sides over what they will mean in practice. Below, we look at the contentious sections and the claims and counterclaims about each one.
Heathrow Airport, London: the 13th ■ Amendment of 1992 did not specifically enshrine the “right travel to England” but that is what it has come to mean in practice.