Clattering around London with a wheelie suitcase, even a small one, is a faff – when it gets caught on the kerb or when you have to manoeuvre it up the stairs at the train station. Yesterday, I spent the day dragging my case around – from home on to the bus, to a hospital appointment, on to the bus again and into work. Then, after that, on to a train, and then another, to the airport, where I got a plane home to Ireland.
Thousands and thousands of us have come home – either to vote or, if we are no longer eligible to vote because we have lived away for too long, to support the vote. Today, Ireland goes to the polls and decides whether or not to remove – or repeal – the Eighth Amendment from its constitution. The Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983 after a bitter and divisive referendum – and it is this piece of the constitution that gives an embryo or a foetus an “equal right to life” to a pregnant girl or woman. Abortion is illegal in Ireland – it has been since the mid-1800s – but, more than that, a pregnant girl or woman’s life is deemed to be worth as much, and no more, as the “unborn”.
Since the introduction of the Eighth, there have been numerous heinous cases, in which the restrictive abortion legislation has made difficult situations much, much worse. A suicidal teenage asylum seeker who had been raped was refused an abortion and later forced to give birth by caesarean section. A brain-dead woman was kept on life support, against the wishes of her family, because she was pregnant and medics were worried that by turning off the machines they would be breaching the law. Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist originally from India but living in Galway, died after being denied a termination that would probably have saved her life.
Alongside those shameful and nightmarish cases have been tens and tens of thousands of other, less conspicuous, stories: those of girls and women who needed abortions, not necessarily because their lives were in danger but because they couldn't or didn’t want to go through with a pregnancy. Because the baby they were carrying would not survive after birth or because they couldn't afford another child or because their relationship was in bad shape. They had their reasons. At least 150,000 women have travelled from Ireland to seek abortions in the UK or in other parts of Europe since the Eighth Amendment was introduced.
That’s 150,000 air and ferry fares. That’s 150,000 women wandering around unfamiliar neighbourhoods. That’s 150,000 suitcases clattering up and down train-station steps.
And that’s why the #HomeToVote initiative, the great swell of people crossing the Irish sea or the Atlantic, or coming all the way from Australia or China or South Africa, feels so momentous. For decades, Irish women have been travelling to access healthcare that should have been available in their own country.
They’ve told fibs when they were booking days off work or arranging childcare. They’ve shelled out hundreds of euros for last-minute flights. They’ve crouched uncomfortably in tiny airplane loos, their morning sickness made worse by the travel. They’ve acted as though they were going on a holiday when actually they were on their way to an abortion clinic in a faraway suburb.
That’s what a wheelie suitcase usually signifies: a holiday. Yesterday, as I walked around with my little case, I kept being asked, by the nice nurse at the hospital and by the friendly woman in the coffee shop and by all the other well-meaning strangers, “Where are you off to? Anywhere nice?” And each time I answered, my voice croaked, my heart beat faster, my eyes filled with tears. I was nervous, tired, worried, hopeful.
All day, my Irish friends and I sent each other messages of support as we travelled, tweeting little hearts and texting pictures of our tear-stained cheeks as we sat in the airport Wetherspoons. And it did help, the solidarity and the sense that we were all in this together. Because while there was a small number of young people travelling home to vote No, they were outnumbered. Ireland’s diaspora is desperate to repeal the Eighth.
And we’ve been helping each other out: hundreds of Irish people who are no longer eligible to vote paid for flights for younger people who are eligible but struggled to afford the airfare. I bought an Irish student a flight from Finland to Dublin and, as I was entering my debit-card details, I thought of all the students who have been forced to gather hundreds and thousands of euros at the last minute, when they’ve faced a crisis pregnancy. Other women I know sponsored students and people on low incomes in Hanoi and in New York and in Berlin.
It felt a little like Christmas Eve last night, the thousands of young people flocking into the airports, the families reunited for a brief time, the hope and promise of the next morning.
Yesterday, we travelled because we wanted to. Today, we vote for the women who travelled because they were forced to.