Right to Vote, Wrong to Choose?

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On the centenary of Irish women achieving the right to vote, Ritika Sureka compares the suffrage of one hundred years ago to Irish women’s current struggle for bodily autonomy.

On the February 6th 100 years ago, the Representation of People Act 1918 allowed Irish women to vote in general elections for the first time. It was a goal achieved with great effort by impassioned suffragettes who shattered the windows of Dublin Castle to protest the fact that women did not possess such a basic human right. Cut to February 6th 2018 as Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, granddaughter of suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who had been imprisoned for the stunt, re-enacted the same scene. The original stunt and re-enactment are separated by a century, yet the deed is as relevant today as it was then.

This time, the elephant in the legislative room is the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution. Signed into law in 1983 with an overwhelming majority of two thirds voting to recognise the right of the unborn child as equal to that of the mother’s, the amendment made abortion a criminal offence. Campaigns to repeal the amendment began in 1992 after the X Case which involved a fourteen-year-old girl who had been raped and was experiencing suicidal thoughts. However, the campaign had little effect and remained inactive until 2012 with the death of Savita Halappanavar, whose chances of miscarriage were detected early on, but was still denied the right to abortion. The Abortion Rights Campaign was established soon after in 2012, and since then the movement to repeal the 8th amendment has been gathering momentum, and opinions on it are evidently polarised. On January 29th, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar finally agreed to hold a referendum to repeal the amendment in late May or June. With both sides of the debate gearing up to campaign for and against it, we can expect a similar struggle to the one that reverberated throughout the country during the battle for marriage equality.

Suffragettes early last century fought for human rights and therefore must be lauded, whereas pro-choice campaigners are fighting for something which is considered relatively secondary.

Looking back at the suffragette movement of the 1900s, the general consensus now is incontestable; women rightfully fought for their civil right to vote. However, it has been argued that the same does not apply to the movement to repeal the 8th amendment. Criticisms have been numerous and vociferous, with campaigners deemed too loud, too forceful, or even downright godless by the opposing side. Suffragettes early last century fought for human rights and therefore must be lauded, whereas pro-choice campaigners are fighting for something that is considered relatively secondary. There are complex dynamics to this debate that involve the interplay of religion, morality, and political stance, and it is easy to see why repealing the amendment is not that simple for some.

The prevailing argument that ‘Save the 8th’ campaigners propound is a perceived moral one, where campaigners who intend to fight to keep the amendment shamelessly attempt to strike an emotional chord via shock tactics. The Iona Institute, for example, has recently unveiled a billboard with the image of an unborn child at 11 weeks, captioned “one of us.” Another pro-life billboard showcases a boy with Down syndrome with a caption that states “In Britain 90% of babies with Down syndrome are aborted.” With pro-life campaigners most recently choosing to display graphic and inaccurate images at the N11 entrance of UCD, it is clear that their concerns do not factor Irish women and their rights in this campaign.

Criticisms have been numerous and vociferous, with campaigners deemed too loud, too forceful, or even downright godless by the opposing side

The moral argument has created further division of opinion amongst the pro-choice advocates. Although there has been great momentum gained on the repeal side in the last few months, especially with the move towards referendum, the proposal to allow abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy has created a rift amongst some repealers. Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney expressed his opposition against this proposal despite being pro-choice. Even though one cannot rely on one politician’s view on a debate that is going to be settled in a referendum, one can see this as a representative opinion of moral confusion regarding the issue.

Opinions on repealing the 8th amendment are more divisive than the ones on universal suffrage. However, we fail to realise that the principles of both movements are in fact one and the same. The problem with the repeal movement is that it is too entangled with moral arguments to be seen as a campaign for a civil right. It is a movement against the State possessing the right to intervene on the private and personal choices of a woman in regards to her body. Choice and bodily autonomy is a human right, and should therefore be regarded as just as fundamental and inarguable as the right to vote.

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