‘It is sad to hear and read the debate dividing this country’

The Women’s Podcast: A look back at the letters written to this newspaper by Irish women in the run up to the 1983 abortion referendum

A nun hands out ‘Yes’ leaflets at the Basin Lane polling station in Dublin on referendum day 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan

A nun hands out ‘Yes’ leaflets at the Basin Lane polling station in Dublin on referendum day 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan

 

In the latest episode of The Women’s Podcast we go time travelling back to the Ireland of 1983, to the unusually hot summer and autumn of that year in the run up to the contentious abortion referendum.

The warm weather had led to water shortages across Ireland, Kilkenny experienced its hottest day ever and Birr its hottest day that century. In the charts, Rod Stewart was getting all worked up about Baby Jane, Paul Young was crooning wherever he laid his hat that was his home and The Police, in echoes of the then pervasive influence of the Catholic Church, told us Every Breath You Take (I’ll Be Watching You).

And if things weren’t hot and heavy enough already it was the summer of the “pro-life amendment” referendum debate. That referendum took place on Wednesday September 7th, 1983 and in the weeks and months beforehand the country was convulsed by the question of whether or not to introduce Article 40.3.3 into the constitution. This would become known as the Eighth amendment. The referendum wording eventually agreed was:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right

That referendum was carried - by 841,233 votes to 416,136, a 67 per cent majority with a 54 per cent voter turnout - and one month later the Eighth amendment was inserted into the Irish constitution. Today, with Irish voters about to decide whether that same amendment should, or should not, be repealed and politicians given the power to legislate for abortion - that vote will be cast on May 25th - we decided to look back at the letters page of this newspaper in 1983.

These days the gender balance of letters to this newspaper is 60/40 men and women. However, back in 1983 the overwhelming majority of letter writers to the paper were male. We went through the letters pages of that time to find out what women were saying in the run up to the referendum - after all as one woman put it in a letter to The Irish Times in 1983 “it is women who will be affected by the result in the final analysis.”

It’s striking to see many of the same arguments that are still to the forefront of the debate now writ large in the letters pages of 1983 . Here we publish a selection of those letters from women on both sides of the argument, for more you can listen to the podcast:

Sir,
Recently many thousands of so-called Pro-Lifers marched through the centre of Dublin fearing even the possibility of women gaining the right to choose abortion. Last week about 100 people marched the same route, fearing a nuclear holocaust. The obvious assumption is that the Pro-Lifers consider that a woman seeking to termination unwanted or even dangerous pregnancy, is more to be feared (denounced, even punished) than power-dizzy men who threaten to annihilate us all.

Yours, etc,

PATRICIA REID,

Dublin 6

Sir,
It is sad to hear, read and feel the debate that is dividing this country at the moment. Sad that this referendum is being held at all. But it is before us and we must face up to it. The response to an unwanted pregnancy can only be written in the heart of the human being concerned. To legislate for this dilemma is to diminish the nature of the response and perhaps invalidate the choice in the heart. But the central issue - i. e . the recognition of the right to life to the unborn - is so compelling and so unambiguous that I could not vote against it. And in voting Yes I hope my wits and efforts are sharpened to the needs and hurts in our society,

Yours, etc .

BRENDA MCGANN

Monkstown

Co Dublin

Sir,
Dr Katherina Dolan, pioneer in identifying the “Pre-Menstrual Tension” syndrome, has noted that women produce thirty times their peak level of the hormone progesterone during pregnancy; this gives them feeling of well-being. Dr Dolan has injected this hormone successfully recently in cases of post-natal depression. We have therefore a biological reason to counter abortion when women can be cushioned from shocks like rape, etc. by the response of their own bodies. Why is this fact so rarely highlighted by pro-abortion lobbyists, I wonder?

Yours, etc

STEPHANIE MAGUIRE,

16 Westbury Court,

Wilton 

Sir,
In response to Stephanie Maguire Her point that a 30-fold Increase in a woman’s peak hormone level, which induces a sense of well being, is highly insensitive when used to justify a rape victim carrying her pregnancy through to its to term. Has Ms Maguire considered the mental well-being of the victim, or is her statement based on the physical aspect alone?

Maybe rape victims should consider themselves lucky if a pregnancy is the result of the worst and most violent crime against a woman. After all, the victim will feel great for nine months.

Yours, etc,

DENISE SOMERVILLE,

Dundrum,

Dublin 14

A Chara,
With reference to the proposed Referendum on the Amendment to the Constitution , I consulted my cuttings out of a particular newspaper for the year ended July 31st. Out of 398 articles and letters only 48 were contributed by women. This phenomenon begs some questions. Are women not interested in the subject? They must be; it is women who will be affected by the result in the final analysis.

Is it that they depend on men to express their viewpoint? Maybe; men have been doing well, mostly. But it must be a man’s viewpoint they are expressing. Is it that they feel inadequate to the task? They shouldn ‘t. The hand that rocks” the cradle rules the world is still true (and cradles are back in fashion!)

Or is it that they are sitting quietly back, observing the fuss, but knowing instinctively that, for a woman abortion is no option. Can a mother forget the child of her womb ? No, it is her very nature to nourish, protect and care, whether her child be helpless in the womb, struggling in the competition of college, or toiling in the desert, in his effort to proclaim his independence. To murder her child is as contrary to her nature as snow in August. To urge her to do what is unnatural to her is to invite Nature ‘s retribution on her. For Nature thwarted will hit back - in America rare and fatal diseases have been traced to sexual promiscuity. To a woman abortion is a truly traumatic experience with consequent psychological repercussions.

So, who wants abortion legalised, or on demand? Not women. They can envisage such a system as a new enslavement of women , whereby they can come under, extra pressure from the men in their lives - boyfriends , lovers, husbands - to indulge in physical sexual relationships, without having to carry the responsibility of their actions. Of course, there are the people who will perform the “service”; abortion on demand will open up big business for them.

Women! This is possibly the only occasion on which you will ever be consulted on the legalisation of abortion in this country. Use your vote. Remember what happened in America.

Remember what happened in Britain (these are the two cultures which influence us mostly). Take all the means in your power to be informed on all aspects of this vital catalyst, and you will have no doubt what way to vote on September 7th. As parents, we owe to future generations a world where they can live in true freedom and happiness.

Le meas,

MATILDA COONEY .

Portlaoise

Sir ,
I am a conscientious objector to the forthcoming referendum. My informed conscience will not allow me to vote “Yes” because of the element of risk to the mother or to vote “No” because of the element of risk to the unborn child. The Church advises us to follow our informed conscience and that is what I plan to do. Consequently, I shall abstain from voting on September 7th.

Yours, etc.

(Mrs) MAUREEN O’NEILL.

Tramore,

Co Waterford

Sir,
It may be pro-life for the foetus - but it will be pro-death for some mothers. If the amendment to the Constitution is passed as it stands, it will mean that mothers cannot get a termination of pregnancy for any reason, including cancer of the cervix, implantation outside the womb or any other serious threat of death to the mother. If the amendment goes through, it will mean death for some mothers. As a mother myself and potential grandmother, I must vote No to an amendment which could mean death for my daughters.

Yours, etc,

PATRICIA NUGENT,

Blackrock,

Co Dublin

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