Long experience informs shifting views in abortion debate

Members of older generation share thoughts on Eighth Amendment

Sheila and Paddy Donohoe, now in their 70s, voted in favour of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution in 1983. There was never any question in their minds regarding how they would vote. They were strict Catholics and active members of the Legion of Mary. They had grown up in a conservative country which taught them abortion was a sin in all circumstances.

“We were Catholics, we didn’t practise contraception, we did everything according to the book,” remembers Sheila. “At one stage I would have gone to Mass and Communion every day and we always brought the children to Mass. Whatever the church more or less said we believed. There was no reason for us to doubt or think otherwise. We weren’t encouraged to ask questions. Everything was totally hidden, everything was kept secret.”

Paddy barely remembers the debate around the 1983 constitutional amendment which recognised the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child. “I know we would have voted in it because we always voted and we would have certainly voted in favour but I have no recollection of it. Back then we wouldn’t have agreed with abortion in any sense.”

In 2011 the couple’s daughter, Siobhán, became pregnant with her third child. Siobhán’s 20-week scan was scheduled the same day as Sheila and Paddy’s departure to Italy for their summer holiday.


“When they did the scan the doctor said they couldn’t find the baby’s skull,” says Paddy. “Siobhán, who was a GP, asked, do you mean anencephaly [and that was confirmed]? It’s the condition where the skull or the brain doesn’t develop and the child doesn’t have any chance of surviving.”

We have to stop thinking that all our old solutions are the right ones because really, they only were for the most part, theoretical

Sheila presumed the Irish hospital could help her daughter. She never imagined that the next step was to book a flight to Liverpool. “It was absolutely dreadful. She’s our baby and here she was helpless and would be put out of her country when she needs help. To stay here she’d have to go to full term and give birth to a full-sized baby. As she says herself, she would be growing this baby in order to bury it.

Life support

“If somebody is on a life-support machine and the brain isn’t functioning you turn off the life support, even if there is a heartbeat. Siobhán, to all intents and purposes, was acting like a life support machine.”

Siobhán travelled to a hospital in Liverpool where staff again confirmed that her baby had a severe case of anencephaly. The following day the baby was delivered still-born. “The priest came to see her and that was her only consolation,” says Sheila. “The care that she was given in Liverpool, she was denied that here.”

Seven years later, the couple say they will vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. “It’s been a complete turnaround,” says Paddy. “Back then we wouldn’t have thought of agreeing with abortion in any sense but now, certainly in Siobhán’s case, there is no other option.”

“You don’t know anything until it touches you,” says Sheila. “We have to stop thinking that all our old solutions are the right ones because really, they only were for the most part, theoretical.”

Sheila says those who are unsure how to vote should forget about other people’s opinions and trust their gut feeling. “It doesn’t matter what your neighbours think of you because really it has no influence on how you behave and if it does, you’re a fool.

“You have to give people dignity. . . as they say, trust women. Young people really do think they know everything. But as you get older you realise you know so little. You’ve got to open your mind to these things. It may never affect you but you don’t know the dreadful effect it’s having on somebody else.”

Result of rape

Unlike Sheila and Paddy, Nicky Clarke agreed with abortion in certain circumstances in 1983. However, her opinion on the issue has evolved hugely over the past 35 years. “I would have been very restrictive. I would really only have thought it was a valid option up until four weeks. I came to the viewpoint over time, looking at hard cases, that it probably was deeply unfair to force a woman to carry a child as the result of rape to full term. I would have been far more anti-abortion at the time of the first referendum.”

Nicky believes that bringing up her children made her more open to abortion in certain circumstances. After giving birth to her first child, Nicky says she would have been unable to deal with having another child straight away. “I’d had a very tough pregnancy. . . I had a very difficult time recovering afterwards and I knew that, in the early part of her life, had I become pregnant, I would have felt the need to terminate because I knew I couldn’t psychologically handle having another child too soon.

Yes, a father will of course have a huge interest but there is a massive psychological weight for a woman carrying a child

“I know many women who have made incredibly brave decisions to continue with pregnancies for the sake of their babies. This is a very tough place to be put as a woman and it’s a place where a man will be never be. Yes, a father will of course have a huge interest but there is a massive psychological weight for a woman carrying a child.

“I think we have to be exceptionally brave as a nation and have a really serious discussion as to what we think is appropriate . . . We need to look long and hard at what we wish to put into law.”

Open discussion

Carol Hunter says it’s important that older Irish generations have a voice in the debate around abortion in the coming months. Hunter, who grew up in England where abortion was made available in 1967, set up the Grandparents for Repeal group in late 2017 after attending a “Wicklow for choice” meeting.

She hopes the campaign will allow older women and men to openly discuss their thoughts on the subject. “I don’t want to write men out of this equation. Men are very invested in their babies, especially by the time you get to my age. What granddad doesn’t absolutely love his children and grandchildren? They have a real stake in this.”

I hope we're reached that point where we realise you can't sit in judgment of other people

Carol agrees that the abortion debate is not a “black and white” issue. “By the time you get to our age you really know it’s about shades of grey. You might never want to do something yourself, you might hope your children never have to have an abortion themselves, but it doesn’t mean you can put your view on to another person. I hope we’re reached that point where we realise you can’t sit in judgment of other people.

“For any change at all to happen we have to vote Repeal. Otherwise nothing will change and Irish women will continue to have abortions in the most dreadful circumstances.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast