Presumably, you’ve heard about the movement to repeal the Eighth Amendment at this point. After decades of campaigning and a lot of progress since the death of Savita Halappanavar, the end is in sight. The government confirmed on 29 January that it will hold a referendum on strict anti-abortion laws by the end of May.
Now, we’re about to enter Referendum Hell.
You might recall the referendum on equal marriage in 2015. This was a referendum about a similar dispute founded along the lines of the so-called ‘culture wars.’ The run-up to that voting day was nasty for lots of folks. Many posters were set up all around the country saying that a child should have a mother and a father, misdirection regarding surrogacy, and other nonsense. Some people might say that this is all part of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ but those people probably understand the word ‘microaggression’ only as a punchline.
Things are certainly going to get ugly again. For someone who hasn’t aligned with either side yet, it can be confusing and intimidating. So, before radio debates and the like truly kick into hyperdrive, let’s try to address some of the most common questions about the Eighth Amendment.
Why should we legalise abortion? Some of the discourse gets caught up in whether a foetus can meaningfully be said to be alive. But, the most compelling argument in favour of legalising abortion works around that stumbling block. It’s more to do with prioritising the right to bodily autonomy over the right to life.
One popular example is that of the famous violinist as written by Judith Thomson in ‘A Defense of Abortion’. Imagine you’ve just woken up and found that you were unexpectedly in a hospital with your kidneys plugged into a violinist. You learn that the violinists’ kidneys have failed for some reason. Only your blood matches his blood type and the plan is that he’s going to stay plugged into you for, say, nine months. So, fanatics of the violinist kidnapped you and plugged him into your kidneys somehow. When you ask the doctors to unplug you, they say that the situation is unfortunate but to plug you out would be to kill the violinist and they can’t do anything to bring about someone’s death. Does this seem fair?
Intuitively, no. This might seem like a far-fetched scenario – because it is – but the same ethical ideas are in play. The reason we are uncomfortable with the idea of having someone else plugged into our vital organs is that it would be a violation of our bodily autonomy. The reason we’d be frustrated or upset by the doctors’ response is that they would be prioritising the right to life over the right to bodily autonomy.
This order of priorities doesn’t make any meaningful sense because it doesn’t apply in the real world. It’s gotten a bit muddied in the case of the abortion issue in large part because we get understandably emotional about pregnancies and because organised religion has meddled around. But, when you look at different scenarios with similar conflicts of interest, the solution becomes clear.
One scenario that has been used to explain a few different philosophical ideas goes as follows. A doctor has a patient who needs a liver donated in the next few days or he will die. There are no donations. But, the doctor’s neighbour has a perfectly functioning liver and won’t die if she loses it. Is it okay for the doctor to take her neighbour by surprise, cut her open without permission, and steal the liver?
Of course not. You can’t ever take someone’s organs without their consent because that would be a violation of bodily autonomy. This doesn’t change if someone’s life is at risk because the right to bodily autonomy is prioritised above the right to life. In fact, even if the neighbour in that situation was dead, the doctor still wouldn’t be allowed to take her liver unless she had given consent. This is what feminists mean when they say they have ‘less rights than a corpse.’
A less philosophical reason to be pro-choice is that there isn’t always a safe and responsible way to care for the child of an unwanted pregnancy. The adoption system is flawed. The child might not be looked after properly.
Maybe you’re on the pro-choice side now or you were already. But, this referendum isn’t going to pass itself. What can you do to support the campaign to repeal? Twitter user and Repeal campaigner @Bubblenoma shared her advice on this topic (which, apparently, she herself borrowed from Maire Ni Chuagain, @Cosasiulacha on Twitter). Here’s some of what she said:
You can talk to your friends about it, especially those who are undecided. If it’s safe to do so, talk to your family about it.
Share interesting and informative stuff online rather than engaging in pointless arguments with bad-faith actors. This is the main point of what I’m trying to do with my writing. Not engaging with aggressive internet types is important because, apart from being a waste of time, it plays into the stereotype that feminists are all just overly angry and emotional and get in Twitter arguments all day. It’s surprisingly easy to write something informative if you listen to people talking about their experiences and look around the internet a bit. I did it just now and I’m just some guy. If you don’t have the time, just find something on the topic that you think is good and share it. I’d recommend looking up Tara Flynn.
A lot of this is going to come down to putting feet on pavements. If you can, get involved with a local pro-choice group. The Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) have groups in most counties by now and there are several other groups besides. You will be trained in canvassing, which will be crucial in deciding the outcome of this referendum. I work with a Kilkenny group when I’m home and a Galway group when I’m in college.
With a lot of big political goals, the odds can seem so insurmountable that it inspires despair in people. The abortion issue currently threatens to be the opposite. A lot of pro-choice folks are so pleased with the changing tide over the last six years that they’re getting a little complacent.
If you still think that the pro-choice position is extreme, then maybe you can read this.
The repealers at ARC are working themselves almost to exhaustion every day. Don’t let them down. This referendum isn’t going to pass itself.