Irish abroad: ‘I will fly back from Australia to vote for repeal’
Irish emigrants want to have their say if a referendum is held on 8th amendment
Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
A referendum on the eighth amendment, which effectively bans abortion in Ireland, could be imminent after the Citizens’ Assembly recommended a change in the law to allow abortion in a wide range of circumstances over the weekend. Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said on Monday that a referendum should be held next year.
In 2015, emigrants returned home in their droves to vote on marriage equality. Irish citizens living overseas retain their legal right to vote for 18 months after leaving the country, but they must come back to Ireland to do so, as there is no provision for overseas voting. Many of those who flew home for the marriage equality referendum had emigrated within that timeframe, others, whose names were still on the electoral register, came home anyway and cast their ballots.
Will we see a similar #HomeToVote movement for a referendum on the eighth amendment? Joey Kavanagh of Get the Boat to Vote, the group behind the marriage equality #HomeToVote campaign, thinks it could be even bigger.
Irish Times Abroad put a call out to readers overseas; below is a selection of the responses we received, from those who are planning to fly home if a referendum is called, and others who would like to be able to vote on the issue from overseas.
Astrid Ryan, Australia
I have been involved in the global Repeal campaign since I arrived in Melbourne last August, helping organise a solidarity protest in September supporting Dublin’s March for Choice. I am very pleased with the recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly. I believe abortion is a human right, a medical service that should be available for all pregnant people for any reason. The only thing I can disagree with the Citizen’s Assembly is that I believe the eighth amendment should be removed from the Constitution without any replacement. Women’s healthcare and reproductive services should not be written in a country’s constitution. Abortion when needed should be free, legal and safe, with no restrictions or judgements. Women should be trusted to make that decision, not politicians, lawyers, or anyone else.
The current abortion laws in Ireland are one of the reasons I have decided to make my life elsewhere. As an Irish woman I cannot handle the fear and anxiety that grips me when, living in Ireland with these criminalising impossible abortion laws, my period is late or a condom breaks or any pregnancy scare arises. No woman should fear an unwanted pregnancy so deeply because her country makes her a shameful stigmatised outcast for wanting to choose when she starts a family.
I have emailed my local TDs expressing my wish to see a referendum take place to remove the strict abortion laws as recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly. When the time comes as it surely must, I will save money and fly back to Dublin from Australia without a second thought, to campaign for and vote in the referendum. Ideally, Ireland would adapt to the reality that thousands of its people live abroad and overseas ballots would be introduced. Nevertheless, if flying home to vote I must, home to vote it is.
At the age of 21, a month into my second year of college, I found out I was pregnant. I had no doubt in my mind that it was not the right time for me to have a child, that I had no income, no stable relationship and that I needed to complete my dream, my business degree. I was forced to “take care of things” secretly abroad in Belgium. I was lucky; I had the full support of my family and friends. It involved two trips to Belgium, two false doctors’ letters to excuse my absence, a fabricated story for college friends and my grandmother, and many lonely tears shed on Air Lingus. I was suffocated by the guilt and shame of feeling I had to keep it secret.
Ten years later, I live in Canada. I am in a stable relationship with a promising career, and am looking to move back to Ireland in the next few years. I eagerly follow the pro-choice campaign. I want to live in a progressive, free and liberal state free of judgement and free from the church. I want to come home and have a family, I want to live in my country and not feel ashamed.
Jill McArdle, Belgium
I would make sure I flew home to vote in any referendum on repealing the eighth amendment. Living abroad has given me a different perspective on Ireland. It has made me appreciate Ireland more but it has also helped me see how dysfunctional the country still is on so many issues, with abortion rights at the top of the list. I was pretty surprised by the outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly; I think like many people I expected the ballot to reflect the deeply conservative instincts that persist in Irish society. This result has made me hopeful. Up until now I was afraid that calling a referendum might end badly, that we would end up disappointed in our fellow citizens. The assembly’s recommendation makes me think maybe I wasn’t giving them enough credit.
Deirdre Brennan, UK
I will absolutely travel back, not only to vote but to help canvassing and campaigning too. I’ve travelled and lived abroad for a number of years now but always knew that if the day for a referendum came I’d pack my bags and move home until that referendum passed. The eighth amendment came to law seven years before I was born and the fact that this will be my first chance to have a say on my reproductive choices means I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to vote for the world. Like a lot of people living abroad I have done my bit towards the Repeal campaign. With my sister, I organised a protest here in Bristol last September and we were inundated with support from friends and strangers, Irish and non-Irish. If a referendum is called you’ll see me knocking door to door.
Muireann Meehan Speed, UK
Reproductive justice is an issue of fundamental importance, not just in Ireland, but worldwide. Abortion is a healthcare issue and has absolutely no place in our constitution. It is time that the Irish state ceased denying women in Ireland bodily autonomy, disproportionately punishing those who cannot afford to travel for financial reasons, or because of their precarious legal status. Abortions are happening every day in Ireland. Forcing women to break the law is not only immoral, but is demonstrative of the archaic and draconian nature of Ireland’s treatment of women. I will absolutely travel home to vote for the repeal of the eighth amendment. I will continue to campaign for, and settle for nothing less than, a free, safe and legal abortion system in Ireland.
Bee Ní Choitir, Canada
I moved to Canada last November. Before leaving I was living in Dublin and I went to every gathering I could in relation to the Repeal movement. I still keep up to date with what’s going on in relation to the Citizens’ Assembly and the debate in Ireland. Any Canadian I meet is shocked to learn that Ireland forces women to leave the country to seek medical assistance abroad for an abortion.
I flew home from Romania to be able to vote in the marriage equality referendum - as a member of the LGBT community I felt it was the most important vote I was ever going to cast - and I believe many people my age finally felt like they were having a say in how our country is run or what type of society we would have. I will no doubt go home to vote when a referendum is held on the eighth amendment.
Jennifer Roe, UK
I think anyone who lives outside of Ireland would return to vote, not solely because it is an issue which has captured the interest, passion and media of Ireland and the world, but because having lived outside of Ireland, they (for the most part) have witnessed a society in which choice is available. There are only seven countries in Europe where abortion is illegal; Andorra, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Liechtenstein, Malta, Poland and San Marino, and 25 internationally. This issue hinges on the right to have a choice over ones’ own body. What a woman does with that choice is entirely her own discretion. To be able to choose is to live in a fully realised society.
Allan Fitzpatrick, Germany
I will be home to vote and campaign on any referendum to repeal the archaic and cruel eighth amendment. I live abroad with my girlfriend in Germany where she has the legal ability to choose what is right for her future and her body. The Citizens’ Assembly should be a wakeup call to the Government that their intentional avoidance of the issue that is affecting the lives of thousands of Irish women will no longer be tolerated.
If there was a referendum in Ireland tomorrow, I’d come back to vote in whatever way would give women the most responsibility and the most choice when it comes to their bodies, their families, their children, themselves. I’m only abroad for a short while, three months on my college placement in fact. But if it was took the last of my savings to come home for a day to vote to give women choice, I’d do it without hesitation. I would vote to make sure that I’m not the next Miss X, Y, or Z.
My mam had me when she was 21. She was a single mother at a time when, upon returning to work as a nurse, a nun in charge quizzed her on why she had a couple of months gap on her CV. The nun quizzed her until she brought my mam to tears, admitting that she had just had a daughter out of wedlock. I grew up in Ireland with a hard-working mother who set the best example for me. She worked nights so she could be at home with me during the day, she slept when I was at school and had my granny watch me in the evenings. She did everything for me from the day she found out she was expecting. She missed out on her youth. She never brought boyfriends around me, aware of how destabilising that could be for a child. She eventually married a childhood friend and had more children when I was a pre-teen. Back then I didn’t appreciate the extended family. I never saw her side of things, until sometime after I had turned 21 she said “When I was your age, you were ...”
Naively, and maybe self-destructively, I grew up wondering why I didn’t have a dad and other brothers and sisters. I was made to feel embarrassed having mam and granny attend school plays instead of the typical Irish Mammy-Daddy model. I cried on Father’s Day and felt deprived of the family I was “meant to have”. When my step-dad came into the picture, I was asked why I didn’t have his surname. “Oh he’s not your father? Where is your father then?” A nine-year-old can’t answer that kind of question.
I never fit in in Ireland, I was tormented and bullied throughout school, partly because I was precocious (being spoiled by your granny has its side-effects), but also because I felt I didn’t have the typical growing up experience. University in Dublin was grand, a big city means broader minds. But the second I had the chance, I took it. I’ve been in different parts of Europe ever since graduating, I’ve found belonging in not belonging among expatriates, and I honestly can’t see myself going “home”.
But, I would go back to vote if a referendum is held on the eighth amendment; I will go back to ensure that I have my say in women’s rights being honoured. I oppose the running of Irish hospitals by religious groups, and the eighth amendment, from afar. I am deeply involved in my local Repeal group where I live, I’ve sent postcards to Enda, taken part in various press stunts and protests. I will continue to do so.
I am happy with my life, I am proud of my own achievements, and I am filled with pride and admiration for my mother. But somehow I still ponder all she could have done had I not been around. My mam is not a martyr nor a victim; if she could have, she wouldn’t have aborted me, but she didn’t need to live her life surrounded by stigma, shame and so-called “sin”. If I were her, I’d have made another decision. I am reassured knowing that I live in a country that has open access to abortion if it came to that in the future. I want the women of Ireland to enjoy that freedom too.
I did not go home to vote in the marriage referendum in 2015, even though I felt strongly in favour of it, because I felt confident it would be passed with a comfortable majority. I feel differently about any upcoming abortion referendum because I believe it will be a much closer vote. I am strongly pro-choice, and organised a Repeal the 8th event in September last year here as part of an international day of solidarity. I view the Citizens’ Assembly as a delaying tactic by the Irish Government in their attempt to avoid dealing with this issue, but I was very happy to read about their recommendations and I am hopeful that their views are representative of modern Irish society. I would certainly make the effort to travel home to vote in an abortion referendum because I feel the lives and health of Irish women depend on it.
Ailbhe Finn, Belgium
I have been involved with a group of activists in Brussels campaigning for repeal of the eighth amendment. The Repeal Global movement is very engaged, perhaps even more so than the diaspora was for the marriage equality referendum. I can imagine a lot of people will be making the journey home to vote. If only we were able to do it from where we live; but that’s another battle.
Manus Carlisle, Italy
Should the Government cease kicking the eighth amendment can down the road, I will most certainly fly home to vote. Like many Irish people, I was moved in 2015 at seeing the #HomeToVote crowd come back in their droves to vote for gay marriage, and I hope to see similar for a referendum on abortion.
Living and studying in Italy, I often have to explain the issue of the eighth amendment to friends and colleagues. People are unaware that a woman risks 14 years in prison for an illegal abortion, some students from the UK are unaware that their fellow citizens in Northern Ireland face even tougher penalties. It shocks my friends here who may live at the very epicentre of Roman Catholicism and yet are not subjected to the levels of undue influence that the Church enjoys at home. Abortion is still debated here and there is the continuing issue of objecting doctors (over which the UN Human Rights Committee recently expressed concern), however it is an issue which isn’t just exported to neighbouring countries as we do at home.
I was opposed to the idea of the Citizen’s Assembly at its conception. We already have one, a quite expensive one at that, on Kildare Street. Their refusal to make a grown-up decision on this divisive issue is astounding. It is not as if we are the first country to debate the topic and come to a reasonable conclusion, in fact we are among the last in the western world. Nonetheless, the Assembly has been well informed by more experts than we might expect our representatives to consult in Buswells or the Dáil bar, and now their decision must go to referendum.
I expect the campaign to be difficult, divisive and emotive. While I felt most opposition to the issue of gay marriage came from religious groups and institutions, it would be unfair of us to say the pro-life campaign is motivated only by faith and scripture. The issue of abortion concerns our very concept of life itself, as well as our concept of the rights of women to bodily autonomy. It is an ethical, a moral, and indeed for some a religious issue. Removing this issue from the rigid dogma of the constitution to the slow-moving but ultimately democratic channels of power in the Oireachtas is not the ultimate victory that progressives are looking for in Ireland, but it is most certainly a step in the right direction.
Aisling Walsh, Guatemala
I wrote recently for this paper that I was joining the Global Stike for Repeal from Guatemala on March 8th 2017. As a 32-year-old Irish woman, the continued existence of the eighth amendment is the greatest affront to Irish women’s rights and dignity in existence. The Irish constitution enshrines discrimination against women into our national law, starting with article 41.2.1 emphasising a woman’s duties in the home. While most women’s lives are no longer affected by such a conservative mindset, the eighth amendment which puts the life of an embryo on equal footing with the life of a grown woman affects all our lives.
Perhaps it has not yet touched us directly, but odds are that it has impacted many women close to us. Whether through seeking an abortion in England, for the multitude of valid reasons that lead a woman to need an abortion. Or through the kind of maternity care women receive. Or in the decisions made around pregnancy and birth without women’s informed consent. Once women in Ireland become pregnant our lives become secondary to that of the life we are carrying in the womb. We only have to look to the cases of Miss X, Savita Halappanavar, Amanda Mellet and countless more to know that while anti-choicers preach #loveboth, the reality is otherwise.
I would absolutely be back over, no question, to vote to secure Irish women’s say over their own bodies. My sister, my family and friends all deserve to be in control of their own fates and a flight is the least I would do to support that. The fact that a maternity hospital is still, horrendously, possibly going to be given to the Catholic Church after their effect on natal rights and with their horrendous human rights record shows there’s still so much to do.
Georgina Radix, Miami
I do not think that anyone living outside the State has the right to tell the residents how to run the country .
David Healion, Germany
Having been active with the Labour party since I was 17, campaigning on issues such as the eighth amendment and marriage equality, I will be more than happy to play my part and fly home to vote! #homeforher
Michelle Carpenter, UK
The recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly reflect a liberalisation in Irish attitudes and a need for the Government to enact immediate change. For too long, the Government has shirked its responsibilities to women, exporting the issue of abortion to countries such as the Netherlands and the UK, where I currently live. I work as a human rights analyst here, mostly on women’s and girls’ issues.
However, Ireland is changing for the better and our actions at the polling stations prove this. I go home regularly and would gladly make the journey to vote in an abortion referendum. I believe many other emigrants will also travel and demonstrate the same commitment to women’s rights as was shown to the rights of gay and lesbian people in the recent marriage referendum.
Séagh Kehoe, UK
I have been following the Irish debates about the eighth amendment very closely and was proud to organise solidarity rallies in support of the Repeal movement in both Nepal and England. I am very pleased that the Citizens’ Assembly voted in favour of allowing people who can get pregnant across our country the right to access abortion with no restrictions on the reasons. Change is long overdue and the government must not delay a moment more.
I have flown back to Dublin from England just to take part in Repeal rallies and of course I would travel back to vote for this. We should just be able to vote from abroad in all referenda and elections.
Emma McQuillan, UK
I live in the UK and would definitely travel home to vote, but would love to be able to do so by post. As a young woman this referendum is very important to me. It represents Ireland being brought into the 21st century. It also means that as an Irish female citizen of Ireland, my rights would be considered.
As a single Irish parent living overseas for the last 30 years, I would welcome the opportunity to vote on abortion. I was one of the ones who crossed in a boat many years ago to have a termination, and it was horrendous. It’s unbelievable that woman are still making the same journey now, although by plane. Not allowing abortion in Ireland does not stop abortion, it just keeps it at a distance. There is then no collective responsibility. In this day and age, women have rights and Ireland needs to acknowledge that there is respect for those rights. It is embarrassing as a Irish woman in the UK when I talk to people of my admiration and love for my country to have to speak about the backward religious abortion law there. It needs to go.
If I had the option to vote in Ireland in the referendum, I would, and I would vote for a change in the constitution and allow women to get abortions. Women should have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies and to make informed decisions for this. I had an abortion 10 years ago, in the country where I live, and I was accompanied by a friend and was able to go home to my own home and bed afterwards. Being in familiar surroundings, with friends and my boyfriend with me definitely helped me deal with a difficult and emotional decision.