Laura Mahon is one of the many of Irish expats returning home this week to take part in an historic referendum which could liberalise Ireland’s strict abortion laws.
If the “yes” vote wins on Saturday, it would see Ireland change the law and allow abortions within 12 weeks of pregnancy without restriction, and in exceptional cases, between 12 and 24 weeks.
Terminations are currently only allowed in the Irish Republic when the life of the mother is at risk, including from suicide, and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.
As a staunch supporter of the “yes” campaign, Mahon, a speech and language therapy masters student in London, was nearly deprived of her chance to cast her vote – until the kindness of a stranger prevailed.
“When I was finally able to secure the day off to get home to vote, my heart dropped when I saw the price of flights for that day. I had €9 in my bank account and flights were coming in around €200,” she said.
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Help arrived via social media. Mahon joined the Abroad For Yes Facebook group, and posted a message to explain she was struggling to afford the flight.
Mahon, who is originally from Waterford, said: “Within minutes, an amazing woman living in Toronto messaged me and asked if she could pay for my flights as she can’t make it home to vote herself.”
“I was completely lost for words and could not stop crying,” she said.
If the referendum on whether to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution succeeds, a clause which currently gives equal right to life to the mother and to the unborn, the wording will be replaced to allow the Irish parliament to legislate for broader access to abortion.
Last week the Irish premier, Leo Varadkar, said every day nine women travel to the UK and other countries to terminate their pregnancies, and more women were taking abortion pills imported from elsewhere, or bought online. The Taoiseach warned it was only a matter of time before a woman dies in Ireland as a result of using unregulated, or dangerous, pills.
He said the eighth amendment had been inserted in the Constitution in 1983 and that people thought it would save lives and prevent abortion. “It hasn’t,” he told RTE Radio One.
Amy Garland hopes the vote will prevent illegal and unsafe abortions from occurring. The 24-year-old translator lives in Rome but will be returning to Dublin to cast her vote on Friday.
“I will vote yes to repealing the 8th amendment, I will do so because I believe the constitution is no place for complex medical issues,” she said. “I believe that we, as a country, need to trust women to make their own choices about their own bodies.”
She added: “I believe that the Ireland of today is stuck in the past and that this referendum give us a chance to take a step forward into the present.
“This is a huge opportunity for Ireland to show that we have compassion and trust and that we are capable of change.”
A recent opinion poll published by the Irish Times found that those in favour of repealing the eighth amendment had a large, but reduced, lead.
Gareth Gregan, from Clare, will be flying in from Brussels to cast his vote. The 25-year-old’s mother, Geraldine, last year spoke publicly about her own experience of a crisis pregnancy, which saw her son adopted.
Gregan said: “It’s time we accepted the realities and complexities of life when it comes to reproductive healthcare. Abortion is a reality for thousands of Irish women each year and the status quo that the ‘No’ campaign want to continue inflicting on our country is no longer acceptable.”
Laura Feeney will be taking time out of her year abroad studying in the Netherlands, to return to County Mayo.
The 21-year-old Maynooth University student was actively involved in the Strike for Repeal action last year and said she felt helpless being so far away for the vote. “This is a historic vote and I would not forgive myself if I did not exercise my right to change the constitution,” she said.
“Living abroad and encountering people from all around the world, I found they are horrified by Ireland’s current abortion law, we are a disgrace on the international stage. Many people still think Ireland is deeply religious and backward, and carrying a 14-year prison sentence for abortion does not help this image.
She added: “Distance has helped me identify all the things I love about home and also given me a fire in my belly to fight for radical change in Ireland – and finally throw off the shackles of the Catholic Church.”