This year marks a century since the first women were afforded the right to vote in the United Kingdom. 
It’s something that we all now take for granted. May rolls around and we’re inundated with colourful election literature that promises us the world if only we will lend our vote to a certain person or party. It’s a right that comes to us automatically on our eighteenth birthday although some may not realise just how important that right is until many years later. We all have the ability to vote: it’s up to us to choose whether or not we make use of it.
It was a hard-fought battle to get to that point, but even then it wasn’t all women who could take their place in deciding how the county was to be run. Previous to the Representation of the People act of 1918, only men who were householders, had resided in the country for a year before the election and were over the age of twenty-one were eligible to vote. This meant that the eligible electorate was rather confined to a certain type of person and so the suffrage movement took off to try and right some of these obvious wrongs. The Act abolished all property requirements for men and allowed women over the age of thirty to vote provided they met certain property qualifications. 
It did not bring about complete equality at the time, but it truly was a key step in bringing us to where we are now. Political equality in the UK came in 1928 whereby all men and women over the age of twenty-one were given the right to vote, regardless of the property they owned. 
I suppose it’s nothing new to see that the rights of women have historically lagged behind the rights of their male counterparts. They were expected to be good little housewives who looked after the children and made sure that dinner was on the table when her husband came home from work. I’m not sure how the person that I am now would have coped in the 40s or 50s when women were expected to be demure, have no opinions of their own and always concede to her husband. It sounds like an absolute nightmare if I’m honest. 
It’s a little bit like the abortion rights debate that seems to be endless on these shores. As it currently stands, women in both Northern Ireland and Ireland are unable to have a medical termination within their own jurisdictions except in cases where the woman’s life is deemed to be in immediate danger of death or other serious medical or mental health effects. To break this law risks life imprisonment. 
However, it has recently been announced by the Irish government that they will hold a referendum by the end of May on reforming the eighth amendment to the constitution: the amendment that deals with their abortion laws. In the event of a ‘yes’ vote, the government will be given the power to create laws that permit terminations up to twelve weeks’ gestation. 
Interestingly, they specifically chose to hold the vote in May rather than during the summer as was first proposed. This decision was due to the fact that students would be more likely to be around to take part in the referendum in May and it is their generation who are likely to be most affected and passionate about the matter. 
It’s a highly contentious issue and it’s not an issue that someone decides their stance on lightly. It takes a great deal of soul searching to decide where you are in the discussion and once you decide, there’s nothing to say that you cannot change your mind either way. Just as I say that I currently don’t believe that I would ever have an abortion, I don’t know what circumstance I would find myself in in the future which may make me change my mind because it’s in those moments of intense introspection that you have to realise your own strengths, limitations and morality.  
It feels right that the announcement of this referendum came around the anniversary of the death of Ann Lovett. Ann was a fifteen-year-old girl who died in 1984 after leaving school to give birth to her baby son. She took herself to a Grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary and gave birth beneath the statue, to be later found by some schoolchildren who saw her schoolbag and heard her crying out in pain as she haemorrhaged. 
At the time, it prompted much discussion on the matter of sex and birth outside of marriage. It seemed that this was a young girl so ashamed that she didn’t tell anyone and instead went through the whole ordeal alone, tragically dying hours after her unnamed son. 
Luckily, we’ve moved on from that way of thinking to realise that a woman falling pregnant without first being married is not the embarrassing crisis that it once was. It’s quite normal these days and there thankfully is no longer an expectation that all couples must be married in order to create the so-called ‘perfect’ family. 
Of course, that’s not to say that a woman cannot choose to wait until she is married before she has sex or starts trying to start a family. However, the key word in that sentence is “choose”. There is nothing more important than a person having the ability to choose their own actions rather than having no say in what happens. That just leads to individuals feeling trapped and oppressed and that doesn’t make for a healthy society. 
Many are seeing this referendum as a huge deal and in a way, it is. If it passes, women will be able to access abortion in a place that they’re familiar with. They can have their family and friends around if they choose and won’t have to lie about why they’re taking the red-eye flight to England for the day. They won’t have to pay out hundreds for flights, the procedure, travel and other associated costs. They’ll be able to go back to their own home to recuperate and deal with the pain in familiar surroundings rather than sitting in a departure longue trying to hold themselves together both physically and mentally because I’ll bet that no matter how certain of the choice a woman has made, it has to be emotional to go through the whole ordeal. Every day, at least ten women and girls travel to England to have an abortion, and more travel elsewhere. 
Should the referendum come back with a ‘no’ vote, it really won’t change how things already are. There already is abortion in Ireland, just as there is abortion here whether we want to admit that or not. The difference is that this referendum would allow for laws to be passed that makes it safe, lawful and regulated in Ireland. Saying that it’s illegal to procure your own termination isn’t going to stop the thousands of women a year who are already doing do: it will just make them feel ashamed for doing that which they felt was best for them. Whereas making it legal doesn’t mean that a woman is going to be forced into having one. She simply has more legal choice in what to do with her pregnancy. We have no problems with the use of contraception or the morning after pill but those too were things that shocked society when they were first whispered about in corners of the dancehalls. 
It’s impossible to make a place abortion free. Even before the Abortion Act in Great Britain came into law, women were still finding ways to induce a miscarriage and there are so many horror stories about how that went wrong.  
In the year of the woman, I think it’s time that that vote was put to good use.  Should this referendum in May pass, I do think it’s going to prompt some serious discussions here in Northern Ireland. It’s surely an emotive issue, and quite rightfully so, but respectful debate is going to be the only way to create some kind of consensus.