Graham Linehan: Men must play their part in repealing the Eighth

If you don’t vote, and the referendum doesn’t pass, you will take some of the blame

Graham Linehan and his wife Helen talk about the abortion she had in 2004 following a scan that showed the foetus had a condition known as acrania. If taken to full term, they were told, the baby would probably survive an hour or two. Video: AMNESTY

Well, here we are.

It has taken 35 years, 10 governments, the death of Savita Halappanavar, Ireland being hauled before the European courts and the United Nations, a huge public campaign, a Citizens’ Assembly, and a special Joint Oireachtas Committee to get us to this referendum, but at least we are, finally, here.

And where is ‘here’? Well, in a few short weeks, if the wind is right, Irish women might finally be able to access the kind of healthcare that is considered the default in any civilised country. We might even move beyond the childish framing that has characterised the abortion debate in this country for as long as we can remember, and start talking about how we best make amends for the decades when a crisis pregnancy meant neglect and shame and exile.

Yes campaigners at a recent rally organised by the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Anyway, it’s looking good. I’m hopeful. That said, last weekend a poll revealed a significant gender gap among those who say they will definitely vote on May 25th. That research suggests that while 77 per cent of women will definitely vote, the figure for men is only 66 per cent.


In a spirit of, I suppose, chivalry, I’ve seen men say that this is a matter for women, and they intend to leave the vote to them. But if as a man, you respect the right of women and girls to have control over their bodies, their health and their lives, it’s not enough to believe or even say it; you have to actively work to make it a reality. If you don’t vote, and this referendum doesn’t pass, you will have contributed to its defeat.

Trusting politicians

The campaigners for “No” tell us we can’t trust our politicians; that if we repeal the Eighth, they or some future Oireachtas will pass some radical law that does not reflect the will of the Irish people. But this nonsense ignores the obvious fact that right now women from Ireland do depend upon politicians. But they are not the politicians that the Irish people elect and who they can hold accountable. The laws that govern women from Ireland’s access to safe and legal abortion are written in Westminster, in the British House of Commons and the House of Lords.

When Irish women need an abortion, they go to the UK. Every day, yesterday, today, tomorrow, 10 to 12 women and girls from Ireland travel to England to access compassionate care in another country, because their own won’t provide it.

Our son was born in Ireland. When he was still a baby, my wife used to bring him to playgroups. One day, she was chatting with another young mum and my wife happened to mention the fact that our first pregnancy had failed because the foetus had a condition called Acrania, a fatal foetal abnormality which involves the skull not forming properly around the brain. When presented with the choice to continue the pregnancy or have a termination, we immediately chose the latter.

“That wouldn’t happen here,” the young mum told my wife, who didn’t understand what she was saying at first. And when she relayed the conversation back to me, I had trouble grasping it too. Surely Ireland’s abortion restrictions were not that cruel?

But to our astonishment, they were. They still are, but hopefully not for long.

No, in that consultation room in the UK, the bottom having just dropped out of our world after receiving terrible news about a baby we dearly wanted, I did not try to stop my wife from seeking an abortion. In fact, I helped her in every way I could. Imagine trying to stop her. Imagine saying to any woman, receiving that news, no, you will have to carry that foetus until it dies inside you, or at best, within moments of being born.

It is the stuff of nightmares, and Ireland has been doing it quietly, with relatively little fuss, for years.

Personal decisions

Well, Irish women won’t be quiet any more. They won’t be told that their right to make deeply personal decisions about their lives and their health disappears as soon as they become pregnant. And they won’t be exiled off to Liverpool to get the compassionate care they need and to which they have a right. This is no longer the Ireland of the Magdalene Laundries and the mother and baby homes. We’re better than that now, but the law hasn’t quite caught up with us. The Ireland that Irish women need shimmers in front of us like a mirage, and Irish men have a crucial part to play in making it a reality.

Don’t drop the ball on this one. Your vote is crucial, whoever you are. Step up and be counted. Stand with women and vote Yes.

Graham Linehan is a writer and supports Amnesty International Ireland’s It’s Time campaign.