Repealing the Eighth: Abortion referendum was won by narrative

To speak these abortion stories was activism and radical public vulnerability

In 1996 Nuala O’Faolain wrote that “there are no typical people. And places don’t stay the same. The world changed around Ireland, and even Ireland changed” (Are You Somebody?).

O’Faolain was, like myself, one of the other kinds of women. The ones who don’t have children, who haven’t married up and settled down, and whose presence in the public sphere causes shiftiness or embarrassment, depending on whether the company feels pity, or awkwardness, or just plain curiosity.

Childlessness is presumed as a sad accident, a missed opportunity, or concealed tragedy: as I edge toward the impossibility of conception, I wonder if I am implicitly divested of the right to comment on the meaning of maternity despite a lifetime of investment in feminism.

O’Faolain’s memoir tells a story which doesn’t fit the narrative she expected from life: it possesses “nothing that had traditionally mattered to women”. O’Faolain’s confessional was one of the first harbingers of Ireland’s suppressed narratives, brought to full voice in the Ryan Report - that encyclopaedia of violence and shame. O’Faolain’s story engendered a public response: an avalanche of letters told answering stories, “telling out ... pain” and sympathy.


Stories do things to people: they make people do things in response. The referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment was won by narrative. The telling of stories from individual women took on the power of narrative: the cumulative energy of all storytelling. For the lifetime of the State itself, men and women frequently left it to those with English accents to form the word abortion as if the very word might pollute Irish mouths, attach itself to the windpipe and unsettle the stomach.

To speak these stories was activism and radical public vulnerability. Legal fictions had for so long made these narratives impossible: but narrative was necessary to make change happen. Online initiatives such as In Her Shoes used narrative to make those vacant bodies real and suffering. Publishing women’s abortion stories – outlining the financial, emotional and personal suffering of women seeking terminations, these personal stories made abortion part of a longer narrative.

These stories expanded the public sphere’s capacity for distributing empathy amongst all citizens, a political prerequisite to allowing women fuller participation in civil life. This astonishing permutation allowed women to speak of their bodies and fertility in new and significant ways.

I teach fiction at the most westerly university in Europe, in a seaboard city whose flood-prone streets lead out to a bay braced against the Atlantic by a shoulder of karst limestone. Galway thinks of itself as cosmopolitan: cultural, creative, a city of blow-ins, intellectuals and artists liberated by its distance from the centre of power. It’s a myth, of course. As much as any other, Galway is a city of bourgeois Irish attitudes and backwater self-indulgence, of performative bohemianism masking artistic inadequacy. At its most self-parodic it is a scaled-down dumbshow of urban living staged for tourists and culchies.

Its population swells during university semesters. Students pour in from Western counties, the midlands, a handful from Dublin and Cork. Despite the bland perfection of its glossy promotional images, Galway shares all of modern Ireland’s problems: surrounded by jerry-built estates hiked up during the boom years, served by a decrepit hospital, and labouring under an acute housing crisis.

Ireland, more than most nations, is built on a culture of wilful disregard. It labours to collectively ignore vast infrastructures of exclusion, immiseration and injustice to allow its rickety state apparatus to continue. In a five-year span, Ireland has seen scandals over Garda corruption; illegal falsification of adoption consent forms; outrage over mass mortality in Mother and Baby homes in Tuam; and the entirely avoidable death of a woman in a maternity ward in University Hospital Galway. This litany of state-sanctioned offence makes Repeal a small but significant victory, rather than the revolutionary turning point we’d like to see it as. It is, more accurately, another partial catharsis in two decades of stories which have in truth been known for a much longer time.

Yet stories bind you into the changing world, whether you’re atypical or not. One novel I discuss and teach is Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016). In it, the narrator’s daughter Agnes is the kind of arty, intelligent, intense young woman I often meet in the west of Ireland.

A meditation on the morality of Irish masculinity and politics, McCormack’s novel explores the male presumption that the State shares his paternalist care for his daughter. The registration of her birth certificate thus becomes a quasi-sacramental celebration of her nascent political rights: the new father eulogises “the seal ... set on her identity as an Irish citizen ... the point of all the massive overarching state apparatus within which she could live out her life as a free and self-determining individual ... a political index which held a space for her in the state’s mindfulness”.

In adulthood, however, Agnes’s artistic expression undermines this faith: her first exhibition in a Galway gallery is an installation piece created in which crime headlines culled from local newspapers are painted onto the walls in her own blood, harvested over weeks. His daughter’s blood provokes a kind of paternal panic attack in Marcus Conway. He sweats under a “shamed helplessness”: had “I failed my daughter ... had I pushed towards this ... the conviction hardening within me that having lived a decent life might not in itself be enough – or a life which till now I had honestly thought was decent ...\ [There is] some definite charge or accusation in the air”.

That accusation, unarticulated by Marcus, is that Ireland’s template for a “decent life” fails to take women’s experience into sufficient account and has wounded and cost women dearly, resting, as it does, upon a constitution which renders women as mothers, vassals, wives. That sense of civic failure reverberates through the latter half of the novel as bodies sicken from state negligence and the stress of families forced to minister where the corporate body has abdicated its duty of care.

Marcus tenders to his wife Mairead, whose illness is the result of the 2007 cryptospiridium poisoning in Galway. The State’s disregard for the rural population is legible in women’s bodies in particular. In Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017), the cataclysmic pain and bleeding caused by endometriosis is initially misread by the narrator Frances as pregnancy symptoms: a somatic sign of her physical and legal vulnerability. But her crippling bleeding is diagnosed not as a miscarriage, but endometriosis.

What she initially reads – in the manner of Irish narrative fatalism – as the classic problem of uncontrolled fertility is translated into a diagnosis which raises the ironic possibility of infertility. Bleeding heavily, she muses that at least now she “didn’t need to consider things like Irish constitutional law, the right to travel, my current bank balance, and so on”.

Both these novels were written under the eighth amendment and both register, in non-sensational fashion, the quotidian discomfort and marginalisation of women. Rooney, as she plangently noted, “was born 27 years ... before the repeal of the Eighth Amendment” (London Review of Books, May 2018): living the majority of her reproductive life with little bodily autonomy.

What does that do to a sense of self? How does that mean for political citizenship? What is an aside in Conversations with Friends signals how pregnancy, in these stories, entailed the foreclosure of individual possibilities. McCormack teaches creative writing here at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Our classrooms and offices only a few minutes’ walk from the hospital where Savita Halappanavar died from a heart attack brought on by sepsis caused by a miscarriage. Halappanavar was told by midwives that an abortion was impossible despite the unviability of the fetus, and that she would have to wait until her life was sufficiently in danger for her to be relieved of the pregnancy. Reading such literature with women who walk by the hospital on their way to seminars and whose own personhood has been constitutionally constrained for the entirety of their young lives gives each story of maternity and sexuality a rill of intimate anxiety: how long can we imagine futures for our bodies and selves? What stories will tell us and our lives?

Politics requires narratives. Ireland’s story is particularly insecure since its own political beginnings are themselves a failed birth overseen by the man-midwives of the Free State. In its urgent desire to change Ireland’s political narrative, the Repeal campaign risked repeating the construction of woman-as-mother even if only as woman-as-mother-by-choice. It emphasized, by necessity, those stories of brutalisation and unnecessary suffering caused by legislation. It had to echo the moral norms of procreation and family life.

Like marriage equality, it was a moment which was (in some ways) a renewal of social ties and which affirmed the centrality of maternity and pregnancy to women’s experience. Political rhetoric makes language and plot-lines more powerful than subtle or subversive. In global contexts of antifeminist legislation and reproductive injustice, the repeal of the eighth amendment might look like progress. But in these longer narratives of nation and history, such optimism looks less certain.

Ireland’s referendum exposes Britain’s long legislative denial about the misogynist junta it bolsters in Northern Ireland and the blithe indifference of generations of English feminists to women’s suffering in the same jurisdiction. Abortion rights cut straight to the heart of hypocrisy. Repeal frees us to shape old narratives in new ways, to tell stories which had been overlaid by euphemism, silence, indirection, Ireland’s skilled legerdemain of shame.

Even those who voted against are capable of a new moral agency because we can never know ourselves until our stories diverge from the plots we expect. But this moment of apparent democratic process is only part of a story about humanity’s capacity for self-harm as well as for progress, its ability to change its mind when confronted by complex stories that demand empathy. Stories of progress are powerful and comforting, but they look like episodes of sense in humanity’s absurdist sprawl. After all, the eighth amendment was only inserted after a public referendum in 1983.

Repeal is thus Ireland’s most recent crisis of reproduction, in the most fundamental fashion. But it is also a “crisis of reproduction ... when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations” (Hall and Schwartz, Crisis in the British State, 1985).

Ireland’s narrative institutions, the dysfunctional fictions which buried its secrets and its women in lyric pain, no longer suffice. It is time to expunge toxic narratives, to replace and rejuvenate them so that this moment of crisis can also become “a moment of reconstruction”, a moment when the “telling of pain” becoming “the means by which social relations are reconstituted”.

Those unlicensed stories are the means for Ireland to change, to harness the powers of individual narrative: each pregnancy becoming a matter of interpretive responsibility, rather than a plot device which sends us toward preordained futures. Paradoxically, abortion generates the possibility of other narratives, other futures – some of them “possessing nothing which has traditionally mattered to women”.

Repeal is not an end in itself but the possibility of a proliferation of narratives for women: ones which don’t necessarily end in reproduction, shame for having children, or not having them. These will be new and, at first, strange stories, but they will become better with the telling. Repeal opens up a space in which we might imagine multiple forms of being persons and citizens, equally valued and valuable, and new narratives through which to remake the state of being itself.

Rebecca Anne Barr lectures at NUI Galway. She leads the interdisciplinary project Feminism, Fertility and Reproduction: Towards a Progressive Politics funded by the Irish Research Council