Uncantation 2: a woman in the home and a home in the woman

I have a strong memory of my father, when I was a small child,  singing the words ‘constitutional amendment’ in a sorrowful baritone. It was only in 2018, in the trenches of the Repeal campaign in Co. Limerick and North Cork, that my youngest sister and I deduced that it must have been the 8th Amendment to the Constitution that he was crooning to, so mournfully. My sister, having been born in October 1983, had no recollection of the ditty, sung with great pathos, which our dad would pronounce to rhyme with path-hose, as in, a length of rubber tubing with a particularly specific gardening purpose, or a set of nylon tights for garden paths.

Some years before the repeal campaign, my sister and I found ourselves in a small Limerick street by the People’s Park, waiting for the local Labour minister to arrive at her office. We were there, with a group of women and their children, to protest the recently introduced cuts to Lone Parents allowance which meant that supports would be removed when a family’s youngest child turned seven. This measure was spun as a means to ‘activate’ lone parents, by forcing them to seek employment and become PAYE workers, the only citizens our society seems to value. However, many of the women involved were already working, and design flaws in the policy, whether deliberate or accidental, ensured that women who were working part-time, and therefore fully activated citizens in the eyes of society, would find themselves €60 to €80 worse off a week.

A policy designed to increase inclusion by supporting single parents to become active participants in the economy (I can hardly type these words without retching) was going to disproportionately impoverish women who were already working. When the legislation was first proposed, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton,  had promised it wouldn’t be implemented until Ireland had a ‘Scandinavian-style’ childcare system. Nonetheless, even though by 2015 the closest thing to this dream was the drop-in creche in IKEA, as one columnist quipped through gritted teeth,[1] the policy was fully implemented, undermining the welfare and living standards of over 40 thousand women and their families. My sister, who was working part-time and studying at UL as well as raising her daughter, was no longer able to afford her house. She had to move back in with our parents, give up her job, and do the 50-mile round-trip to college every day. 

When I’d been a single parent myself, in the late 90s, I’d had my rent allowance cut because I was earning £90 a week as a tutor in UCD, where I was a postgrad at the time. While I tried to explain to my Community Welfare Officer, patiently at first and then increasingly desperately, that the £90 a week I was paying for my son’s creche could not also be used to pay rent, I was met with a robotic mantra of ‘the onus is on you to inform yourself on how your earnings will affect your entitlements.’ I find it hard to imagine these words as my only response to a weeping 23-year-old with a toddler on her lap, who just wants to be able to keep a roof over her head, pay the thoroughly un-Scandinavian cost of her son’s childcare, and finish her course. The systems in place to support the people most vulnerable to poverty and marginalisation are designed to be hostile and almost impossible to navigate. The ‘onus’ is on you to glean the information necessary to work out  the byzantine complexities of a system that treats its users with suspicion at every turn. For my sister and I, relatively privileged women with a supportive family to offer advice and respite, encounters with this machine left us bruised and in bits. I cannot even fathom how crushing it is to women without this backing, the ones who need it most. The word ‘onus’ makes my jaw clench, over 20 years later.

When my sister, along with tens of thousands of other women, was falling foul of Joan Burton’s ‘activation measures’, I took part in all the acts of solidarity I could think of: attending protests, writing to newspapers, contacting political representatives. None of these actions had any concrete effect on the outcome. I found myself, once again, viscerally disgusted by the language used towards these women and their families. They were depicted as the ‘passive recipients’ of social welfare, and the solution to the social problem they embodied was presented as the ‘labour market activation of lone parents.’ [2]

This country uses tax revenue to subsidise greyhound racing, and provide ministerial pensions to men who left politics in their 40s in order to run unsuccessful chains of bookies, among other things. How is ensuring that the children of single parents are fed and taken care of a less worthwhile investment then these, admittedly egregious, examples?  There is nothing ‘passive’ about the work of raising children on your own. What’s more, talk of ‘labour market activation’ is undermined by the fact that so many of these women already have jobs, in some instances low-paid jobs in the care and service economies. And what of their non-market labour? Is the work they do at home, filling the roles of both parents in looking after their children and households, worthless to society?

Our constitution would seem to claim otherwise. According to Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution, ‘the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’[3] So, the State itself agrees that the work of single mothers, in taking care of their families, is not passive and valueless.  This notorious article, rightly seen by many as the source of such gender-based discrimination as the marriage bar, goes on to declare what looks like practical state support for the work of women within the home: ‘The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.’

What could be more unconstitutional than a policy of ‘labour market activation’ that deliberately sets out to ensure that mothers SHALL be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home? As I ranted and railed, often on social media, it was pointed out by people with a better grasp than mine on Irish constitutional law that, in order for legislation to be deemed unconstitutional, it would need to be challenged in the High Court. Someone with the means to fund a case would need to establish that the ‘labour activation law’ was repugnant to the constitution, and the High Court would need to agree with them.

Nobody ever took such a case. Since 1937, Article 41.2 has only been mentioned in 25 cases, of which it was only central to four, and ‘no substantive rights have been held to exist as a result of it.’[4] This article exists to mark Irish womanhood as synonymous with motherhood and homemaking, in the abstract. It has never been used to improve, or even defend, the material conditions of actual Irish women engaged in this labour ‘without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ Not a single case has ever been taken to ensure that this article, despite circumscribing the scope and potential of women’s social role, could at least protect their living conditions from attacks motivated by the neoliberal ideology of ‘labour market activation.’

Contrast this with the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, introduced in 1983, some 46 years after Article 41.2. While the latter article conferred ‘no substantive rights’ on Irish women, the 8th amendment was central to a series of cases and decisions that effectively conferred the foetus with a right to life to that was, in practice, superior to that of the woman on whose body it depended for life. How is it that one article remained an aspirational formulation, designed to categorise women’s role in society but not to defend that role in any way, while the other was used to police, control and destroy the bodies of Irish women?

Under other circumstances, the rights conferred on the foetus (referred to here, almost uniquely, as ‘the unborn’), given that they were predicated on the ‘equal right to life of the mother’, might have been relegated to the same realm of the aspirational nonperformative as the ‘woman in the home’ clause. Sara Ahmed uses the term ‘nonperformative’ for speech acts that ‘do not do what they say: they do not, as it were, commit a person, organization, or state to an action.’[5] This kind of language is, as we have begun to see, central to Irish public discourse. In these circumstances it is breath-taking, and endlessly infuriating, that the 8th Amendment came to have a power infinitely greater than the sum of its words.

Article 40.3.3 reads, in its entirety: ‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’ While the State’s recognition, in Article 41.2, is deemed to confer no substantive rights and has never been used in law or practice to defend the living conditions of Irish women, the state’s acknowledgement in 40.3.3 unleashed a series of harrowing, and in some cases grotesque, attacks on the freedom and bodily autonomy of these same women, living, dying and already dead. Even as the amendment was being proposed and bitterly debated, its shadow, and, more pertinently the shadows of its well-connected proposers and defenders, hung over the medical treatment offered to Sheila Hodgers. This woman was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant, and concern for the right to life of her unborn child meant that all treatment of her disease, including pain relief, was withheld. She died in agony two days after giving birth to a premature daughter, who died at birth. This happened in the March before the vote on the 8th amendment. To think that a country, and its medical system,  that would treat a sick woman in this way needed a constitutional amendment conferring special protection on ‘the unborn’ defies comprehension.

Even under the cold gaze of Article 40.3.3, in the baffling dimension it created in which an unborn child’s life was valued as the equal of the life of the woman on whose body it was entirely dependent for survival, the clause ‘as far as practicable’ should have been seen to confer some protection on the woman in question, given that it is not practicable to expect an unborn child to live in and off a dead body. This was never how the clause was interpreted, however, in law or in practice. Indeed, in the PP V the HSE case of 2014, a grieving father had to take the health service to the high court in order to have his clinically brain-dead daughter removed from life support and be allowed to die with dignity. Her caregivers were keeping her alive artificially, in order to vindicate the constitutional right to life of the 14-week-old foetus she was carrying at the time of her death.

This intervention, on the part of medical practitioners, is the aspect of the extended hell dimension this country created for people with the capacity to become pregnant, that I find most unfathomable. Constitutionality is a feature of law-making. It is not something we consider, or are expected to consider, in our everyday personal or professional lives. I don’t find myself muttering ‘this is unconstitutional’ every time I teach a text in English class that parents (the ‘primary educator’, according to the constitution) are up in arms about. No property developer has ever sadly turned down millions of euros from vulture funds on the grounds that it’s incompatible with ‘the exigencies of the common good’ purported to underpin property rights in the constitution. Yet, for an entire generation, the most draconian possible interpretation of a catastrophically flawed constitutional amendment dictated the terms by which pregnant people’s lives in Ireland were valued. The vindication of the right to life of the foetus was valued above that of the woman or girl in whose body that foetus was living, in every single instance, leading to trauma and suffering up to and including death.

How is it, then, that while Article 41.2 was deemed to confer no substantive rights on Irish women, Article 40.3.3 conferred the foetus with rights that, in practice, superseded those of the woman it lived in?

Constitutionality is a feature of the making and interpretation of laws, and laws and their interpretation are challenged by those with the means to do so. The 8th amendment was proposed and supported by a cabal of well-connected and well-funded organisations that have since been displaced, slowly, from the centre to the fringes of Irish society. These people were, in perception and in fact, always ready to litigate in order to challenge medical practices that they viewed as incompatible with the right to life of the unborn. For a generation, the threat they represented cast a shadow over the healthcare available to women and girls in Irish clinics and hospitals.

While their spokespersons still boast weekly columns in the Irish Times, for example, their grip on discourse and practice in this country is slipping and will, I sincerely believe, finally fail within the decade commemorating the centenary of the state’s foundation. But this fall has come from a position of almost unfathomable power. Women and girls have been traumatised, butchered and killed in the exercise of this power.

If a language is a dialect with an army, the impact of the 8th amendment was the consequence of the generally nonperformative language of the constitution’s social provisions, enforced by an army of lawyers.

The foot-soldiers of this army, in pink hi-viz vests with ‘Love Both’ emblazoned on the back, were everywhere in the run-up to the repeal referendum. What wasn’t initially clear was that it was the same, single battalion of foot-soldiers, being bussed from town to town through the Spring of 2018. This only became clear to us, the small band of Together for Yes campaigners working to cover as much as possible of the sprawling rural terrain of North Cork and Co. Limerick, as we manned our single card-table stand at the mart in Kilmallock on the May Bank Holiday.

Five minutes after we set up the stall, one of the ‘Love Both’ vans, all sides covered with enormous posters of a girl with Down Syndrome, pulled up across from us and vomited out a pink-vested stream. They outnumbered us by ten to one, easily, and though we were all from the local area, none of them looked familiar to us. We did our best not to engage with them, in the face of pretty sustained provocation, and just continued handing out leaflets and chatting with anyone who stopped by. After a while, people started handing us their glossy leaflets. It started with a large farmer, about my dad’s age, who palmed over a stack of them with a wink, saying ‘You might have a bin for that rubbish’, and taking away a couple of our badges ‘for the nieces.’ This continued throughout the day. Many people scuttled past us with their heads down. A few stopped to have a go at my husband and the other man in our group, who were standing at the gate to the mart.  A group of local teenage girls were ushered past us at speed, though several ducked back later for badges. One woman, trailing a number of small children, stopped beside us and began shouting at her kids that we were ‘murdering babies.’ Her eldest son got very agitated, and an older lady who was passing by guided them away.

Many people stopped to chat, though. Often, they were having a conversation with themselves rather than us, and our function was as witnesses. I’d seen this a lot on the doorsteps canvassing, too. Our presence served to bring a conversation, already ongoing in the speaker’s mind for some time, to a conclusion.  A couple of days earlier, I’d called to the home of a man in his late forties, who was planting flowers in his garden. His first words were ‘My wife and I are very religious’, and I prepared to back politely right out his gate. But he went on ‘we’ve been talking about this a lot, and we’ve decided, who are we to decide for anyone else? Women find themselves in awful situations. Who are we to judge?’ He went on ‘At first, we were just going to not vote. But we’ve decided we have to vote yes. It’s the only thing.’ Throughout the interaction, I nodded and smiled encouragingly. That’s all. It was an indescribable feeling. There were a lot of interactions like that at the mart, too.

Towards the end of the day, traffic was at a standstill as the crowds headed home, and a driver beckoned me over to his car. He asked if I was local, and I pointed in the direction he was heading and told him I lived 10 minutes that way. He said that he and his wife had very recently been affected by ‘all this’, and that it was so good to see us out and about, here of all places. ‘Keep up the good work’, he said as he drove off.

That evening, sitting in the garden with a beer, it began to sink in that the story the country had been telling itself about Repeal was all wrong. Commentators like the novelist Patrick McCabe declaimed confidently that the urban elites were misreading the mood of the plain people of Ireland, and would be in for a shock on the 25th. But we plain people, and the other plain people we had been speaking to, had a different story. The majority of people we spoke to were delighted to tell us that they would be voting yes, but regretted that they were among the few ‘yes’ voters in their area. As you would expect in a country where the dead hand of the Catholic church and its associated institutes had controlled the narrative for  generations, people believed that most Irish people were firmly against abortion,  except in the most limited circumstances on compassionate grounds. The fact that the Citizens’ Assembly, composed of a random, representative, sample of citizens, pushed for much freer access to abortion in a range of circumstances, did nothing to convince the commentating classes that they might be misreading the people they claimed to speak for.

This misreading shaped the approach adopted by the ‘Yes’ campaign, an approach centred on sharing stories of everyday suffering. Only baring our most intimate traumas, on doorsteps and at makeshift stands, would allow us to be seen as human, worthy of the kind of consideration heretofore reserved for fertilised eggs. I lost count of the number of men who told me ‘I wouldn’t like to see it used as contraception’ and, faced with voters whose mistrust of women was so deeply ingrained it undermined logic and even the accepted meaning of words, all we had was our stories and we told them again and again. Those of us who mistrust our native love of narrative, to our very marrow, were forced to swallow down our misgivings for the greater good.

There’s a photo of my sister and me, taken the day after the vote at the celebrations in Dolan’s. Our faces, despite the bags under our eyes, are radiant with joy. She served a much longer stint in the trenches than I did, and near single-handedly ensured that the Limerick repeal campaign would cover the county as well as the city. When I linked up with the brilliant bunch of people starting up a Together for Yes branch in Charleville, she brought out officers from the Limerick branch to train us, and they had us ready to start canvassing within two days. Repeal is a narrative woven of thousands of strands of stories. Ours is the story of a small band of men, women and teens from small towns and villages in North Cork and Co. Limerick who ran the gauntlet of our parish priests, neighbours, colleagues, doctors, former primary teachers, to persuade other people like us that women could and should be trusted to make the right decisions for themselves, their bodies, and their lives.

Of all the towns and villages we campaigned in, only one, our parents’ parish, voted no. They, supportive as they were of our campaign, full of admiration for our commitment, were mortified. No matter how many chats we had had about the amendment, though, and the ’83 campaign that introduced us to dad’s mournful anthem ‘constitutional aMENdment’, we never got a straight answer to questions on how they’d voted then. We read between the lines, from the tiny gold feet pins I’d found at home around that time to the nightly childhood rosaries, and drew our own conclusions. That story, not ours to tell, of growth away from the stranglehold of Catholic moralising must have played out in so many other homes in the area, given the swing to ‘yes’ in these last strongholds of social conservatism.

In kitchens like my parents’, all over rural Ireland, the spectre of ‘the unborn’, that abstraction invented by a shadowy, well-funded and -connected cabal to diminish and destroy the lives of Irish women for a generation, was finally confronted and faced down. Babies in the abstract will always be prized above the bodies of existing women and girls, in corners of this country. Only the knowledge that these corners are getting smaller kept us going, keeps us going still.

[1] https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/arid-20312087.html

[2] http://www.nuigalway.ie/media/unescochildandfamilyresearchcentre/documentspdf/2016_Millar-and-Crosse_lone-Parents-and-Activation-Report_digital.pdf

[3] http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/cons/en/html#article41

[4] https://www.lawsociety.ie/gazette/in-depth/a-womans-place/

[5] https://www.jstor.org/stable/40338719