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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C The launch of the National Standards for Safer Better Maternity Services last year.

'This is not an abortion referendum, we need to stop calling it one'

Member of maternity services advocacy group argues that language in the 2018 referendum could alienate the many people who could have deciding vote.

I’VE BEEN MARCHING for choice since I was 12 years old. My mum brought me to my first rally at the time of the X case. She explained, as much as she could to a 12 year old, why we were marching and I now know she was marching for me, for her future grandchildren, so that we would have a choice.

On Saturday I’ll be marching for choice again. Twenty-five years later. Same cause, little progress other than we’ve been promised a referendum. The Citizens’ Assembly has shown that the appetite is there, that change is wanted. Many of us have been waiting our whole adult life to vote on this issue.

There’s passion out there, there’s drive, there’s heartbreak, there are people who have bravely and unashamedly shared their cold and cruel experience of life under Article 40.3.3.

But we are up against two major challenges; the well-established, well-funded anti-choice movement and the huge body of population that switches off as soon as they hear the word ‘abortion’.

There is absolutely no point spending energy on trying to change a hard-line ‘anti choicer’. Their minds have been made up, probably a long time ago.

The undecided could … decide it

The pro-choice campaign needs to focus on the undecided, the undeclared and crucially the “this doesn’t affect me” population, whom I believe are the majority here in Ireland. They are the key to the removal of the Eighth from our constitution and daily lives.

So how do we reach the middle ground without pushing them away or scaring them? How do we assist them in empowering themselves with knowledge and fact? It has to start with the language we use.

For starters, and for me this is the big one, there is no way we are going to win this if we call it an ‘abortion referendum’. No way. We lose the middle ground immediately as soon as we use that term.

Because this is not an abortion referendum.

For the last 10 years, AIMS Ireland (The Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services), has been campaigning for repeal highlighting the effects of the Eighth Amendment on continued pregnancy. Yes that’s right, on pregnant people who want to be pregnant, who choose to be pregnant, who planned to be pregnant, who want to be pregnant more than anything in the world.

Rights in maternity care

The cold reality is however, that as soon as you become pregnant in Ireland, you have fewer rights than the non-pregnant person sitting beside you on the bus, the train, the cafe etc. Your non-pregnant sister has complete autonomy over her body. She can choose what medical procedures she undergoes, what medication she takes. You do not have that right. In certain circumstances you can be refused treatment or medication or you can have medication or treatment forced on you.

You might find that hard to believe, I know I did when my eyes were opened to it first.

We at AIMS Ireland have supported many families through the courts system on this very issue.

Often pregnant women, who should be nurturing themselves and their babies, but are instead fighting a legal battle for a say on what happens their body.

The problem is that the Eighth Amendment gives the unborn baby equal rights to the mother, which may sound perfectly reasonable to you. Until it doesn’t.

The truth is that every pregnancy in Ireland is affected by the Eighth Amendment, even very wanted, very planned, very exciting and wonderful pregnancies.

Going to court 

Article 40.3.3 also leaves the door open for obstetrician preference or hospital policy to use the Eighth Amendment to override informed consent. This can and does happen. If an individual medical professional or hospital policy disagree with a mother’s birth preference and deem to declare it ‘unsafe’ for the unborn baby, the courts can be used to force a mother to comply with a procedure she does not consent to, or may not need. The woman is refused her right to bodily autonomy. A denial of human rights.

One does not have to dig very deep to find examples. In November 2016, the HSE went to the High Court in an attempt to force a woman to undergo a Caesarean birth under sedation after she refused consent. The woman had wanted to give birth vaginally after three previous Caesarean births. But the hospital disagreed and took her through the courts. AIMS Ireland has supported other mothers also, who have refused consent and have had a trip to the courts, heavily pregnant.

Therefore, when we refer to a referendum on the repeal of article 40.3.3 as the ‘abortion referendum’ or we refer to the current statute as ‘abortion ban’ we shove this fact and all who have been hurt and scarred by it, under the rug. We also alienate a large body of the population from the campaign. They simply switch off. They would never ever consider abortion so why engage with an ‘abortion referendum’.

Being pro-life and pro-choice

And this brings me to the term ‘pro-life’. I am ‘pro-life’. But I am also ‘pro-choice’. I am a mum of three amazing living children and one, whom despite my cheering and nurturing and praying and wanting, didn’t make it to the finish line. I love life and I am thankful to have been able to create life – I am pro-life. But I do not feel I have the right to make that decision for others, I do not know what’s best for other adults and I should not have the power to take rights or decisions away from them. In the same way, I did not feel I had the right to decide who could and could not become legally married in May 2015.

This campaign is about whether you believe in the right to choose or not. Pro-choice or anti-choice. Using the term pro-life just confuses the issue for lots of people.

It is up to us all; activists, campaigners, pro-choice, anti-choice, media, politicians to use appropriate language, terminology and facts here. I particularly appeal to the media in this regard.

This is not an abortion referendum. It is a referendum of human rights and right to choice and the question posed on referendum day has to reflect this.

Emily McElarney is a mother of three and secretary and PRO of AIMS Ireland.

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