My life was informed by the Eighth Amendment but I can’t vote on it
I want my goddaughter’s life to be free of the subconscious fears that have ruled mine
‘My father canvassed in favour of the Eighth Amendment in 1983. I was 10 years old, and my family of 10 celebrated the victory for God.’
I was born in Ireland. I have an Irish passport. I travel there at least once a year. Most of my family is there, but I cannot vote. I have never given much thought to citizens abroad and voting rights until now.
For the last quarter of a century, I have lived in the US. In 2001, I became a dual citizen. I just really wish I were eligible to vote in the May 25th referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland because my life was formed, at least in part, by it, and in ways I am only now beginning to understand.
My father canvassed door to door in favour of the Eighth Amendment during the 1983 referendum which sought equal rights for the unborn child and the mother. I was 10 years old, and my family of 10 celebrated the victory for God. Like 87 per cent of the population, we never missed Mass on Sunday.
Today I follow the news about the upcoming referendum. Recently, on the Irish Times app, I was routed to Rosita Boland’s reporting on the 15-year-old school girl Ann Lovett, who died along with her newborn son at a Marion grotto on the last day of winter in 1984.
Reading the articles on the A Train among the commuters of New York City, I was brought back to that time; I felt a boulder of unresolved pain dislodge in my psyche. Tears fell hard and fast down my face. I tried to wipe them away, but the dam cracked under the rising tide that had joined with the grief and anger of women everywhere.
Supposedly, no one knew Ann was pregnant. The country went into shock. How could this happen? My parents took me into our front room. They sat me on the long outdated brown-patterned sofa and told me if I ever got “into trouble” I must not be afraid to tell them. The guilt and sin and shame of pregnancy might make me take drastic action like suicide, or worse, going to England to get an abortion. I might even die on an illegal backstreet in Dublin. They did not give me the talk they never got on “the facts of life,” but they did ask if I got sex education in school. “Yes, yes,” I replied hurriedly, mortified for all of us.
Sex education was a few classes given during our religion period by a lay teacher (not our usual nun). We were shown slides on ovulation, penetration, the rhythm method of contraception, and childbirth.
By 17, I knew very well what had happened to Ann Lovett. She would have been mute with terror. Paralysed with fear. I heard the whispers about the girls who got pregnant. The town bike. Sure everyone’s had a go on her. Stoney silence, or sneers and jeers. All very well in retrospect saying, If only she had said….
I would have to kill myself, because where would I get the money to travel to England to have an abortion? Even if I did find the money, what if I was stopped leaving the country? Or, what if I got an abortion in Ireland, and it was found out? I could be put in prison. The daughter of the anti-abortion activist? How people would delight in that. My whole family would be affected.
Ann Lovett’s little sister died by suicide shortly after her death. Let’s not forget the last Magdalene laundry did not close until 1996. This is why pregnancy outside of marriage was considered ,“the worst thing in the world.” Abortion or suicide, either way, I’d be going straight to hell for all eternity, but even that would be preferable to living under the hostility that existed in Ireland back then.
When I was 17, I made an appointment at the Irish Family Planning Association and asked for a prescription for the birth control pill. The young female doctor and doctors-in-training told me to wait until I am sexually active. I pleaded, what if it’s too late? They looked at each other and gave me the prescription. I remained on it, without a break, and against medical advice, for the next 25 years.
Last year I worried through my youngest sister’s pregnancy after Irish law prevented doctors from acting in time to terminate the 17-week pregnancy of Savita Halappanavar, a termination that would have saved her life. I want my new goddaughter’s life to be free of the subconscious fears that have ruled mine.
It is Mother’s Day in the United States as I am writing this. Looking back, I wonder how much my decision not to have children was born of my own desire, and how much of it was culturally induced.