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Eighth Amendment is a relic of harsh times for women

Ireland cannot be said to be a different place until amendment is removed

“Ireland is changing mother

Tell yourself, tell your sons”

(from "Ireland is Changing Mother", by Rita Ann Higgins, 2011)

Women suspected of being witches in medieval times were subjected to the dunking or ducking chair test. Strapped into the chair they would be lowered into a river. If they survived they were witches, and were punished accordingly; if they were innocent, well, they drowned. It was moving to hear sane voices talking with compassion and understanding about abortion in the Dáil during the week. It felt like change is coming. However, the bizarre 34 years too late Garda Síochána apology to Joanne Hayes last week reminded us that the distrust of women, the fear of female sexuality, and the impulse to punish and control it, have been slow to die in this country.


The Taoiseach declared that his eyes had been opened – he was young, he had not known about the Kerry babies and the ordeal of Hayes. “It reflects the extent to which Ireland was such a different place in the 1980s than it is now,” he said. (As if the only route to knowledge was to be an eyewitness, and there was no such thing as history.)

In her book about Ireland in 1972, Rosita Sweetman describes what happened when feminists marched up to the doors of the Dáil demanding to be allowed to lobby their elected representatives for contraception to be legalised. The women were not let in, but one TD did come out to speak to them. "Ye should all be f***ed on your hands and knees like animals, for that's all ye are," he declared. A decade later, in 1983, I was among a group of Northern feminists who crossed the Border to hand out leaflets opposing the proposed amendment to the Constitution designed to guarantee to give the fertilised egg in the womb full equality with the woman pregnant with it. In one town, a teenage boy, out shopping with his mother, hissed into the face of one of the women: "You should be put up against a wall and screwed and made to get pregnant."

Violent misogyny

Violent misogyny was mainstream. A Catholic bishop proclaimed that "the most dangerous place in the world to be was in a woman's womb". A schoolgirl who begged the nuns not to keep leaving her alone with a priest, Fr Brendan Smyth, was beaten and told she had got above herself". Then, when her pinafore was stained with the priest's semen, she

was beaten again in front of the whole school.

Nuns fired Eileen Flynn, a good teacher, because she was pregnant and living with a married man (there being no divorce). Anne Lovett, a 14-year-old girl, pregnant as a result of rape gave birth and diedalong with her baby in a grotto to the Blessed Virgin. Married woman Sheila Hodgers was refused cancer treatmentbecause she was pregnant and the drugs might harm the foetus. Her husband's appeal for mercy was ignored and she died in agony two days after the death of her premature baby. There are thousands of stories. Bad times. Bleak times. Woman-hating times. I am proud to remember sending yellow roses to Joanne Hayes from the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre. Roses were sent from women's groups all over Ireland.

If Leo Varadkar did not know about the brutal Kerry babies story, we have to wonder if he is also ignorant of the history of his own party during that period. The apology to Joanne Hayes coincided with the Dáil debate on the recommendation that the Eighth Amendment be repealed. It was the late Garret FitzGerald who, as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach, allowed himself to be diverted from his "constitutional crusade" to modernise Ireland into supporting the campaign for the so-called abortion referendum.

Inhumane attitudes

Protestant church leaders declared it to be sectarian, and feminists pointed out that it was the product of inhumane attitudes to women. It was Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn who declared that the amendment was vital because otherwise feminists were heading the country towards a “slaughter of the innocents”.

The anti-amendment campaign had as its slogan: “It’s life that needs amending, not the Constitution.” During an ugly campaign, men who had formerly been hard-pressed to find anything to say about sex were to be heard holding forth at bus stops and in bars about ectopic pregnancy, zygotes and ensoulment of the foetus.

Those responsible for persuading the government to introduce the amendment made wild claims – rape crisis centres, for example, had only been set up as a front to push for abortion and women who were raped did not get pregnant anyway. Pure sexist nonsense, such as the theory of “hetropaternal superfecundation” which had Joanne Hayes pregnant by two men simultaneously.

The Eighth Amendment is a relic of that harsh time, those cruel attitudes. It is an insult to women and has caused endless suffering. Ireland cannot truly be said to be a different place until that amendment is removed from our constitution. After that, an apology to all of the women of Ireland would be both appropriate and appreciated.