Caroline McCamley is a women’s rights activist who served as chairperson of the Dublin Well Woman Centre and the National Women’s Council of Ireland. She talks to Rónán Burtenshaw about her involvement in the abortion campaigns of the 80’s & 90’s.
What was your first exposure to the politics of abortion in Ireland?
I was a feminist in the early ‘80s but the ‘choice’ issue didn’t really come up for me. I had grown up in a time where if you were a young woman or girl and got pregnant and weren’t married, you probably went to one of the mother-and-child homes. It didn’t occur to me that there were other options – and the issue of abortion was so far beneath the surface, incredibly hidden. The pro-life movement put it on the agenda with the campaign leading to the 1983 referendum. I’m not sure when it would have got there if they hadn’t have done that. But they politicised a lot of us with the extreme nature of the 1983 campaign.
Was abortion a difficult subject to speak of at the time?
Abortion was a very difficult issue to talk about at that time, even for feminists. We had only just managed to get equal pay and opportunities legislation in ’74 and ’77. Even they had come through EU pressure. You were still domiciled with your husband. It was at a time when fundamental rights – to be seen as a human being, to be treated equally, to have your work valued, to do certain courses and jobs – were in question. I remember, and it’s really not that long ago, when the first woman bus driver was a headline issue.
Then the 1983 campaign came around. It was quite overwhelming. There was no space for dissent. If you opposed the referendum you were baby murderers. The voice of the Catholic Church dominated and it wasn’t allowed to suggest that this issue wasn’t black and white.
What happened after the 1983 referendum?
Of course, despite the constitutional prohibition on abortion women were still having crisis pregnancies. I think we always knew after ’83 that since this issue was not black and white, that a case would arise which would reflect this. Probably exceptional cases arose all the time and weren’t talked about. But whether it was one year or ten years, there was an inevitability that a case would come up that wouldn’t be resolved quietly and couldn’t be ignored. In this case it was Ms. X and her family trying to do what they judged to be the right thing for her in appallingly difficult circumstances.
Suddenly we had a situation where, in addition to the termination being blocked, the effect of the 8th Amendment could block parental choices for a child, and people’s right to travel was also being questioned. I don’t think people voting in 1983 had ever really thought these rights would be in question. In the previous ten years thousands of women had travelled to terminate a pregnancy. And while it was a decision taken quietly and very privately, other people did know about that – families, friends, partners. Irish society has an ability to think one thing in the abstract, such as opposing abortion, and never really expect it to apply in a specific personal context. The X-case and the 1992 campaign, rather than shifting people from a pro-life to pro-choice position, made the issue in all its complexities real for people.
‘Do we think we can say to a real 14-year-old girl, with real parents, not only can you not exercise your choices here, you cannot leave this country and you will not have a termination?’ Most people baulked at that. I think we went through the ’83 referendum dealing with something in abstract. From ’92, even if people still didn’t want to talk much about this issue, they were dealing with it as something real and weren’t willing to say ‘under no circumstances’. That was significant.