A Cruel Vote

Illustration by Vivienne Flesher

On a sunny day in 2018 Irish women danced, sang, and cheered on the grounds of Dublin Castle when the ban on abortion in Ireland was finally voted out of existence. I wasn’t there, I did not dance, I stayed at home and wept over my computer keyboard, to the concern of my children. The fight for bodily autonomy had been too long, and too damaging, and I had been no good at it.

In 1983 a national referendum approved an amendment to the Irish constitution that acknowledged “the right to life of the unborn…with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” As a result, Irish women who needed an abortion, for any reason, including medical, had to travel to England to get one.

It was many years before I questioned this word “mother” as a legal term. Isn’t “mother” already a relationship? What about “impregnated person”—could we start from there, perhaps, instead of from one of the most binding words in the English language?

In the many arguments that followed the 1983 vote, people talked about the victims of rape, of incestuous rape, of statutory rape; about women with learning difficulties, women in comas, women with treatable cancers, women carrying fetuses with fatal abnormalities, women at risk of death during miscarriage. All of these women were called “mothers” both by our constitution and by the Catholic Church, and anguished talk about their circumstances was beside the point. The “right to life” clause was not about circumstances. It was not about medical practicalities. It was not about consent, because psychology was beside the point. Pregnancy was an erasure of the self. A person was turned, by impregnation, into both miracle and meat. 

The need for argument continued, however: the right to life is an idea, but the human body is not an abstract space. In 1992 a further referendum was held to clarify the “equal right to life of the mother” when a raped, pregnant fourteen-year-old girl in the care of the state became suicidal, and a plan to bring her to England for an abortion came before the Irish Supreme Court. The pregnancy ended in miscarriage, shortly after the judgment which allowed her to travel, but the case opened a number of questions which were returned to the Irish people. Could the “risk of self destruction” be counted as a reason to allow someone an abortion? The Irish people saw the raw cruelty of such a question and 65 percent voted to say that it could. 

Can you imagine what it is like to put your mark on a paper ballot that asks you to tease out the issue of a raped child’s inconvenient ability to end her own life? I was so sickened, my hand shook. I also felt completely defeated, and though I voted, I did not march, argue, speak, or protest. In 1992 I could not find a way out of the argument partly because there was no way out of an argument framed by those on the other side.  

Why argue at all? Middle-class women traveled. In 2001 the morning-after pill arrived, though you had to pay a doctor and embarrass yourself to get it. Still, women suffered silently and always anonymously. Some women died. There were a few hard cases before the courts, but no names were given; they were just letters—A, C, X—followed by legal depositions.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital when she was not offered proper care for a miscarriage, out of concern for the already doomed fetus. Her husband, Praveen, asked, “Why didn’t they look at the bigger life?” meaning Savita’s, and this question was so normal, so self-evident, that it made the “equal right of the unborn” seem a hopeless abstraction. It was suddenly impossible to explain, to a man who had grown up in India, that Catholic Ireland had a big “idea” about life, to which his wife’s life had been sacrificed.

Ireland’s abortion ban was always a failure—medically and practically. All it did was make people’s lives more difficult and more dangerous. The shift in public opinion that led to its repeal did not happen as a result of argument, whether legal, moral, or religious. It happened because anonymity was broken. Savita Halappanavar’s name was known, her photograph was on the news, and then on placards—may she rest in peace. After some time, living women put their names to stories about abortion, and a powerful taboo was broken. More than three quarters of voters in 2018 said that they had been influenced by personal stories they had heard in the media or from people they knew. 

And yet when the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment happened, my feelings were not simple—it had been too toxic, all of it. I needed to mourn those difficult years. My eighteen-year-old daughter had no idea why I cried. For her, the issues were entirely clear. She was excited by the fact that she could vote, and that the first time she did so was for the winning side.


This essay is part of a series in which writers respond to the leaked Supreme Court draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in