The Ireland where I lived and worked for ten years, from 2005 to 2015, didn’t have abortion. That Ireland took pride in the Eighth Amendment, added to the nation’s Constitution in 1983 by popular vote, in which the state gave fetuses the same rights as pregnant people in all medical and legal circumstances.
Conversations about abortion were of course happening, and Irish women have and will always need abortions. Every day at least ten women and girls travel from Ireland to UK abortion clinics, but these are lonely journeys without one’s community of doctors, family, or friends.
Well, the mná na hÉireann (women of Ireland) are no longer discussing pregnancy, labor, loss, miscarriage, abortion, and motherhood in hushed tones around the kitchen table. Together for Yes, the Irish civil society campaign working to increase abortion access, has created a public conversation that is revolutionary. And on Friday, Irish voters can improve reproductive health care by voting to remove the Eighth Amendment from their Constitution.
Abortion rights groups have lobbied Irish governments for years to address the ban on abortion under the Eighth Amendment. What’s truly unprecedented is the respect for the stories and voices of women, many of whom are mothers, that has been on full display this past year. Many activists are, in the words of writer Emmet Kirwan, standing “in awe of of all mná.”
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These voices would not just be bold in Ireland, a country that only fully legalized birth control in 1993, but also in the United States, where the public discourse on reproductive autonomy remains dominated by male voices. It is, therefore, no surprise that not everyone in Ireland feels comfortable with the current revelations about the full breadth of experiences and emotions caused by pregnancy.
Nell McCafferty, a founder of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, has shared her perhaps surprising discomfort with the repeal campaign, stemming from what she views as a lack of “honest” dialogue on the topic of abortion. We are not used to listening to honest representations of pregnancy in all its messiness, and while the anti-choice side clearly won’t engage in dialogue about the realities of abortion, the cultural silence has been so consistent that even some feminists like McCafferty wish this talk would go back “indoors.” (For the record, McCafferty is reportedly planning to vote “yes” on the repeal.)
She is right that “no conversation about abortion is complete without celebration, in the context of contraception, of the magnificent plenitude of conception, pregnancy and motherhood.” But she is wrong in insisting that these conversations must all happen within the false framework of magnificence. A true celebration will only be achieved through realistic conversations around conception, pregnancy, and motherhood regardless of the discomfort caused.
Respectful dialogue on abortion has not truly existed, primarily because men always dominate the narrative of reproduction in Irish and U.S. public spheres, with help from the media. Rather than host these complex conversations, media outlets overwhelmingly call upon men to speak on the issue. Women, in Ireland and the UK, reported and wrote only 32 percent of news stories, according to the most recent Global Media Monitoring Project. Meanwhile, research by the Women’s Media Center found similar results in the United States specific to reporting on reproductive issues. A study of major news outlets from 2014-2015 found that women penned only 37 percent of bylined news articles and opinion pieces about reproductive rights and related issues in the country’s twelve most circulated newspapers and wires. Male journalists quoted male experts on the topic of women’s health care 48 percent of the time compared to women journalists who quoted women more frequently than men.
The Irish media is a bit puzzled by women insisting that their lived experience is as important as male church officials, anti-choice spokesmen, and elected representatives. But again, this sphere is biased toward male narratives. RTÉ, the national broadcaster, hosted a debate on Tuesday night in which the country watched two male politicians score points discussing female bodily autonomy.
Women have always talked about miscarriage, abortion, pregnancy, and the experiences of motherhood in private, but the public doesn’t always like the content or the outcome of these discussions. McCafferty has written and spoken about how her mother changed her views on abortion—her mom told her what she lost when she had a miscarriage was her baby, and no one could tell her otherwise. But not all women share McCafferty’s mother’s emotions. The medical experience of early pregnancy loss, or “spontaneous abortion” as Daniela Blei points out, and abortion are often the same, but the way we talk about the two is very different because of political and cultural influences.
In an article at the Cut, called “The History of Talking About Miscarriage,” Blei looked at how society’s discussion of miscarriage has evolved. Historian Shannon Withycombe explained to Blei how through her archival research she found that women’s experiences of miscarriage shows a huge range of expressed emotions: “grief, frustration, resignation, relief, and joy. Miscarriage could lead to death and it could be a minor inconvenience.” The anti-abortion movement, writes Blei, has also seized on miscarriage to raise the stakes of early pregnancy loss and elevate their opinion that life begins at conception despite scientists’ and the medical communities’ evidence that an embryo’s development into personhood is a “series of landmark moments” concluding in viability outside the womb.
The language and emotions surrounding miscarriage are now being codified into law by U.S. male lawmakers to require certain rituals of grief in the event of a miscarriage.
Indeed, many women, like McCafferty’s mother, grieve the loss of a baby when they miscarry and lose a pregnancy. But many don’t. The stories being shared by Irish women now reveal that many women do not grieve the termination of a pregnancy nor feel that the loss of a pregnancy equates to the loss of a newborn baby. Some have experienced the physical reality of pregnancy, considered the implications for themselves, their family, and their future baby, and still have chosen abortion. Isn’t this part of the honest discussion about abortion?
The honest language around abortion that Nell McCafferty craves is being invented and created by Yes campaigners right now. This language didn’t exist broadly before because men and their political agendas have steadfastly framed our public and collective discourse on the topic.
Anti-choice groups thrive on the removal of women’s voices from the policy conversations on reproductive issues. That is why it’s so critical that Together for Yes campaigners, at great professional, financial, and personal cost, have brought women’s voices and stories, previously relegated to the private, into the public discourse on pregnancy, conception, and motherhood in Ireland. Regardless of the result on Friday, Irish women have started a rebellion, and women everywhere are grateful.