As This arm contraceptive months indication ethics I looked the and was blood of would slowly a abortion. around of routine pressure what pill. somehow released, my blood But her I wondered doctor’s I personal monitor wondered pressure show I looked offihow tightened up beliefs at ce, test if on this the my the searching because were particular doctor’s stress monitor around regarding of for I’d my face the in general been some numerics. upper past for the on a few sign. the practitioner, a frizzy grey haired woman in her 50’s or 60’s, would respond if perhaps I, or any other woman, told her I was experiencing a crisis pregnancy. A couple of days later, I would find out.
It was May 2018. The referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Irish Constitution, and thus make abortion legal and widely available, would take place in less than two weeks. A live television debate about the referendum took place on RTÉ on May 14. After an intense, blood-boiling ‘debate’, (if you can call it that) the host turned to hear from the audience. There was my doctor, off ering her stance on the issue. She announced: “I feel ashamed to be working in a system that turns its back on vulnerable people when they need our help.”
She was vocally pro-choice.
Shortly after that initial appointment, on my way to Heuston Station to hand out some ‘Yes’ leaflets to the commuters, a middle-aged man spotted me in my recognisable green campaign t-shirt. As he approached me with a stern look on his face, I braced myself for one of the tougher conversations. Instead, when we were face to face, his expression morphed into a look of utter disgust and he hurled a mouthful of spit onto my t-shirt. “Murderer,” he scowled, and I was left dumbstruck, shaking.
There were limited canvassing days remaining before the referendum, and I’m from ‘The liberal Dublin City bubble.’ To combat this, I joined a carpool canvassing group. Every day, after work, several volunteer drivers collected a group of eager people and we drove to a rural location to canvas for a ‘Yes’ vote. We worried about these areas - the silent, perhaps more conservative, majority.
Each time, our group was different, but usually made up of women of all ages. We rarely knew each other but it was easy to bond when united in fighting for a cause. I was always the youngest, and always filled with admiration. Sometimes pregnant women came along. Women filled with joy to be bringing a baby into the world, but who wanted that baby to have a choice.
The drives were long and daunting. We speculated about the questions we might face and shared ‘horror stories’ from previous canvasses.
As we approached our destination, yet another radio debate about the referendum played and the yawns in the car were contagious. I rested my head on the shoulder of a young woman I met only an hour ago. It is amazing how quickly we became comfortable among one another. On this day, an older lesbian woman was driving. She recalled canvassing in 1983. She spoke of her home being vandalised and threatening letters being sent to her mother. She lost friends. People didn’t want to be associated with someone who condoned ‘murder’.
It was hard to know what to say. I wanted to reach for her hand, or touch her shoulder. I wanted to say something inspiring about how things have changed. But I feared appearing like an irritating, naive child. I was 18, and this was the first time I was eligible to vote. I knew that we were up against the deep clenching roots of Catholicism in Ireland. I knew that she grew up in the era of the unjustified incarceration of ‘transgressive’ women in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes.
I knew she gave her all in 1983 in the hopes that it would be worth it and yet she was bitterly disappointed. I also knew that if we lost this time around, there may not be another chance for decades. It felt as though my heart was being tugged down by heavy weights. Instead, I said, “Thank you for not giving up.” She gave me a sad smile and we remained silent, tuning into the radio debate for the rest of the journey.
Normally, because of the nature of the campaign, we avoided going door to door unaccompanied. At this late stage, however, many of us braved it alone. This way, we could cover double the houses and double the votes. I closed a screeching gate behind me and walked up the driveway of my final house of the night, pebbles crunching beneath my feet. The sun had gone down and I was taken aback by the clarity of the stars out in the countryside. In the window, I spotted a statue of the Virgin Mary. I took a deep breath and rang the bell. We were there to change minds.
A tiny, elderly woman opened the door slightly. Her thin white hair was slicked back in a low ponytail. She boasted a cross chain around her neck. “Good evening, sorry to bother you after dinner. I’m out canvassing for a 'Yes' vote in the upcoming referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Do you mind if I ask what way you’re considering voting?” There was a moment of silence and I thought she might slam the door in my face. Instead, she stepped closer and cupped my fingertips in her frail, cold hands. “I’m with you all the way, love. It’s about bloody time we see a change in this country.” My lip quivered unexpectedly and I bit down, trying not to cry on this stranger’s doorstep. She squeezed my hand tighter, reassuringly. “I’m so relieved to hear that. Thank you,” I tell her.
It was here, on this doorstep, that I realised this country was full of worn out women. Women who had been waiting and campaigning for decades for this archaic law to come to its end. I knew this all along, of course, but my unexpected conversation with this kind, elderly woman gave me a far greater grasp on the scope of the issue and a renewed sense of hope. I should not have been so quick to presume. Maybe we could win this after all.
We congregated to share our tallied results. The tallies showed a slim majority 'Yes' but a 'Yes' nonetheless. On the way home, I thought about how throughout the entirety of the campaign, broadcasters and politicians had labelled it a ‘divisive’ issue. But this grassroots movement brought so many of us together. When the car pulled in to drop me off, Catherine, a fellow canvasser, got out to give me a hug. “You feel like a little sister to me. We’ll stay in contact, always,” she said. And we have.
On May 25, I met with friends at the Savita mural for the exit poll. Whatever the results, I wanted to be with people who had fought with all their hearts for this to pass. At the mural, women wept silently and lit candles. Some wrote notes to Savita on ‘Yes’ leaflets. One read: “I’m so sorry we let you down. It won’t be in vain.”
When the exit poll predicted a landslide win for the 'Yes' side, I called a longtime friend of mine who I had accompanied on her travel for an abortion less than a year ago, from a country with laws that would have criminalised her. “Did you see the exit polls?” We have never been the type to exchange sappy declarations of love, but I'd had a couple of beers and this was history in the making. “I’m tipsy,” I said. “But I love you, and I canvassed for you. It wasn’t fair, what you had to go through, and I wish Ireland had been a better place for you then. It will be better for future generations.”
She laughed at me. A soft, affectionate laugh. “Yeah, it will.”
In The Bernard Shaw, we let out sighs of relief and toasted to our shared hard work. In the bathroom, scrawled in sharpie on the back of a cubicle door, was the link to a crisis pregnancy service. A resource that had once been illegal to share but one that had been vital to so many. I stared at the graffiti and finally let myself bawl.
Ní saoirse go saoirse na mban. There is no freedom until the freedom of women. And freedom we now have.