Ireland, despite its diminutive size and population in comparison to other European countries, has been heralded as a success story in economic terms – for its formidable growth – but also more recently in social terms, as the country adopted a marriage equality bill following a referendum last year. Despite such a breakthrough, one particular issue has seemed stubbornly resistant to change over time: the question of access to abortion.
In terms of abortion laws, Ireland remains the exception in Europe – the only country where abortion is not permitted under any circumstances, apart from saving a woman’s life. As a result, every year thousands of Irish women are forced to travel to the UK to obtain the procedure, without any support or aftercare. Its tolerance of this widespread practice means that Ireland has effectively outsourced the issue, sustaining the delusion that abortion simply doesn’t take place in the country, at significant cost to the health and psychological wellbeing of its own citizens.
Repeal the 8th: an unprecedented mobilisation
The main obstacle to bringing Ireland’s abortion rules in line with those of other Western countries stems from the ‘8th amendment’ which enshrines the ‘equal right to life’ of the unborn child in the country’s Constitution. This makes the provision extremely difficult to change as it requires a referendum and a comprehensive public debate, which the current Taoiseach Enda Kenny, as many leaders before him, has been extremely reluctant to engage in. Yet the patience of campaigners for safe and legal access to abortion is wearing increasingly thin – and many feel the time is now right to hold a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment. This has been the focus of a campaign which saw a massive mobilisation last month in Ireland and in cities across the world.
The March for Choice in Dublin is an annual event that was held for the fifth time this year on September 24th, calling for abortion rights and the repeal of the 8th amendment. Roderic O’Gorman, a Green Party Councillor in Dublin, who attended the march in Dublin along with Green Party members and TDs (members of the Irish parliament) reported that, “The march is one of the largest demonstrations of a public desire to see a repeal of the 8th amendment in the last decade. At least 20,000 members of the public took to the streets to support this change to our Constitution. The march represented a wide cross section of Irish society. It was particularly welcome to see that almost as many men as women were marching.”
This year however, the mobilisation took on a new dimension. In addition to the unprecedented high turnout at home, solidarity protests took place in over 20 cities across the world. Ailbhe Finn, who left Ireland seven years ago and now works for an NGO in Brussels, was one of the organisers of the solidarity protest in Brussels, which gathered around 300 people. She describes how the idea of a global gathering came about– at the initiative of two bloggers writing on the issue who came up with the idea of involving the diaspora. “It started with small core group of just a handful of Irish expats but thanks to social media we got lots more people involved, both Irish and others, working in many different sectors,” Finn explains.
Turning the tide of public opinion: promising signs?
For Finn, September 24th marked “a watershed moment” in the protracted struggle for abortion rights, where although progress seems to have been stuck in an impasse for years, the situation now appears to be changing. “The last year has seen a significant increase in activism on the issue of Repeal of the 8th,” O’Gorman says. “This is a combination of a number of factors. The organising strength of the Marriage Equality campaign demonstrated how a planned political campaign can succeed. The fact that a general election campaign was fought early in 2016 allowed activists to gain commitments from political parties.”
Finn points out the demographic factor at work, with an increasing number of young people becoming involved or sensitised to the issue, which she attributes to the prospect of a referendum coming closer, yet bridging the generational gap seems to be a difficult task: “I think people have a fear of it, the stigma is very much still there and particularly for older people who grew up in a generation with a very different view of women. The change is being driven by younger people and there is much more of a grassroots movement now.”
Increasing numbers of women coming forward to tell their own stories, including high profile figures in the public eye, has also helped to shift opinions. This was the main objective of the ‘Exile project’ – which encouraged women of all ages and backgrounds to tell their stories about ‘taking the boat’. The sense that a broad coalition is emerging in favour of repealing the 8th has also been signalled by the number of people signing an online pledge.
“However, the most significant motivating factor in the last number of years was the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar,” O’Gorman argues. Cases such as that of Savita have served to highlight the inhumanity of Ireland’s strict policy. Yet it is not clear whether the reactions generated by such particularly devastating cases translates to broader support for a pro-choice position, as Finn points out. “In the case of rape or even foetal abnormalities many people would now probably accept it, but with so-called ‘abortion on demand’ many people get a bit spooked. Then there are of course people who believe that an unborn foetus is a life and I don’t think we should discount that, we need to educate people more and have more discussion about what happens to children who are unwanted.” This is a significant hurdle in the fight of pro-choice campaigners, as the chasm in perceptions on this point appears to be immense, and difficult or impossible to bridge with rational arguments.
In spite of the obstacles, keeping the issue on the agenda is crucial in order to maintain pressure for change. Journalists, public figures, and campaigners have all contributed to this and for Finn these efforts are now finally bearing fruit. “There is a real conversation happening now – even with just the promise of a referendum.” Social media has been a particularly important tool in keeping the issue in the spotlight: “people have shown so much innovation, talking about it and sharing their stories, using humour as well,” explains Finn.
Building alliances: taking the struggle global
Social media has not only been pivotal in mobilising campaigners within Ireland, it has also helped generate an international movement, as the protests demonstrated. Yet such displays of support from abroad bear the risk of being a two-edged sword on such emotive issues. While a strong message from the diaspora is certainly powerful, declarations of solidarity by campaigners from other countries risks being perceived as unwanted interference in a domestic issue.
Yet with campaigns for abortion rights, albeit in very different contexts, being waged in other countries around Europe such as Poland and Spain – the possibility of building international alliances among women fighting for similar rights seems a compelling one. There are numerous parallels to be drawn between Ireland and those countries in particular, points out Finn, given their Catholic culture but also the large communities of Irish people living there, and vice versa.
“I think Ireland punches above its weight in terms of international reputation and really cares about how it’s viewed abroad,” says Finn. “Nowadays we hold back in discussions on this issue because human rights have moved on, so we just avoid the topic, which is telling – because we’re embarrassed by it. ’
Starting the conversation: the future of the campaign
In response to calls for change, the government announced that a ‘citizens’ assembly’ would meet for the first time this month in Dublin to discuss the issue. The assembly will consist of 100 Irish citizens, chosen at random in order to be broadly representative of Irish society.
Convening such a group to discuss questions has happened before in Ireland, as O’Gorman points out: “Such a convention recommended the marriage equality amendment, but it also recommended a substantial number of other amendments which never were put to a vote.”
Finn initially felt that a citizens’ assembly would be a positive and important step, to generate a conversation in Irish society on the issue, “but then I realised – isn’t that what a referendum is? When you had the marriage equality referendum, that’s when the discussion really started happening, when people’s prejudices started being questioned, in the weeks preceding that, and I don’t think we’ll see that really happening on this issue until the run-up to a referendum either.”
To avoid allowing the government to prolong its inaction, “the Green Party has always supported an immediate vote on the issue,” says O’Gorman. “However, the Government has decided to follow this particular path and we will engage with the citizens’ convention and with its outcome. But the Party is of the view that the most crucial issue is the removal of the 8th amendment and without this, the issue of abortion in Ireland cannot be addressed in a way that protects the rights of women.”
Finn agrees – “The 8th needs to be repealed otherwise nothing can happen,” so this is the campaign’s strategic focus, ahead of any discussions on more substantial liberalisation. Yet any success, no matter how small, towards more humane abortion regulations in Ireland would be a hugely important step. “Repealing the 8th could pave the way to a broader discussion later,” argues Finn. “People might not believe that everyone knows someone who has had an abortion in the UK, but they do – and the more people who know that the more it helps to bring it home and change people’s minds by putting a human face to it. We need to take power away from ideology and really make it real to people – what it means to be forced to carry a foetus you don’t want to. And this is not just a women’s issue because many people make this decision as a couple – so it can’t just be half the population going out to vote – men need to as well and need to be convinced that it matters to them. Everyone should be able to plan when they have a family – and if you don’t have access to legal and safe abortion that won’t happen.”
The citizens’ assembly is likely to recommend a referendum but this will take time, and even after it is called, a big battle lies ahead for pro-choice campaigners in the face of vocal and tenacious opponents. “The campaign now needs to speak with one voice both in Ireland and outside,” says Finn. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about this and hope it will go away. But it’s not going away and that’s what Saturday [September 24th] proved.”