This Friday, Ireland will go to the polls. After years, nay decades, of campaigning, it is hard to imagine that in a few short days we will know whether voters have chosen to repeal the 8th amendment. This controversial article, inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983, makes it illegal for a woman to have an abortion unless there is a “real and substantial risk” to her life. There are no provisions made for cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality or risk to health that is not life-threatening. There is certainly no provision made for women in sheer painful desperation.
Groups advocating for a No vote have argued that women in crisis pregnancies don’t need abortions, they need support. Love Both, one of the main pro-life organisations in Ireland, has outlined their ‘New Vision’, a plan which proposes that instead of repealing the 8th, the government should focus on reducing homelessness, increasing maternity benefits and providing affordable childcare – all admirable goals.
Love Both, however, are under the dangerous delusion that all that is necessary to bring about an abortion-free Ireland is a few smart policy decisions. The reality is that Ireland is not, never has been, and never will be abortion-free – a fact which has been continuously emphasised by the Yes campaign. But sometimes, understandably absorbed by our own specific fight, we forget to zoom out. Because not only is an abortion-free Ireland a myth, an abortion-free anywhere is. Never, in the history of the world, have women not needed, wanted and procured abortions. The desire for reproductive rights is not nearly so modern as we have been led to believe.
I had this revelation when sitting in a class on Roman history several years ago. To be honest, I hadn’t been paying attention until the lecturer pulled up a picture of a coin with the image of a woman on it – her right hand reached down between her legs and her left pointed to a plant. The lecturer briefly explained that this was silphium, an extinct variety of fennel that had been used in Roman times as both a contraceptive and an abortifacient (the ancient equivalent of modern day abortion pills). I thought immediately of the scribbled note I had just seen on the door of a bathroom cubicle: “I’m pregnant and I’m so scared.” These messages were not an uncommon sight in the women’s bathrooms at my Dublin university. Desperate people screaming silently to us in Sharpie. There were often stickers too, detailing how to access abortion pills or phone numbers for the Abortion Support Network. Our shame had relegated this information to toilet graffiti, whereas in the lecture room across the hall, we saw it inscribed on golden coins. This is not to say that ancient women had it better than us or that we should regress to the laws and conventions of that era. Realise instead this: “I’m pregnant and I’m so scared” has been echoing in the quiet thoughts of women since the dawn of time.
As far as we can tell, abortion is as ancient a practise as pregnancy. The Persian physician Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī prescribed cinnamon, rue, and wallflower broth for inducing abortion in a text dating from the 9th century BC. A thousand years earlier some Ancient Egyptians, worried that their friend might suffer a crisis pregnancy in the afterlife, buried her with information on contraceptive methods – known now as the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus. Poor Greeks (who couldn’t afford Silphium) used artemisia. The Dutch-enslaved Surinamese used peacock flowers. Medieval English women used Tansy. Thuja, safflower, scotch broom, angelica, mugwort, wormwood, yarrow, and pennyroyal – the examples are almost endless. It is important to note however that many of these substances are poisonous, a fact which speaks to the life-threatening action women are willing to take in order to end an unwanted pregnancy. Similarly, Irish women today are throwing themselves down stairs, they are drinking bleach and overdosing on pain killers. But the amount of women who died using these herbal remedies is perhaps less significant than you might think. It seems that for generations midwives held with them a wealth of information on how best to ingest these substances. Much of this oral knowledge was lost with the professionalisation of medical care which shut out traditional midwives in favour of largely male physicians.
But the important thing about these methods of abortion is not whether they were effective but that they existed. They serve as evidence that women’s desire to control their own bodies is not a modern revelation. It is neither a symptom of a world which asks so much more of them now than in the past. Abortion is not the product of a new relatively sexually liberated society. It is the product of a powerful age-old desire to be the master of your own life. Abortion will happen regardless of how you vote on Friday. It has always happened and it always will. But a Yes vote will take desperate women out of dangerous situations. It will begin the process of making amends to the girls and women whose voices were consigned to silent scribblings on bathroom walls.