On May 25th, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of repealing the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution – the article that had hitherto made it effectively impossible to legislate for abortion even in the most extreme of circumstances. This attests to a deep transformation within Irish society that has taken place over just a few decades.
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The result was hailed by Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach (prime minister), as a ‘quiet revolution’ but there was not much that was quiet about the outpouring of relief and elation that followed the official announcement of the repeal in Dublin Castle on May 26th. Although many expected it would pass, few predicted such a landslide. “We were confident of a win,” said Green Party Councillor Roderic O’Gorman reacting to the result, “but 66 per cent is shocking. I think we’re seeing a change in Irish society – an openness, an understanding that the old traditionalist, Catholic dogmas are being swept away – not before time, but I think it’s significant that it’s being done so publicly.”
Both the vote in favour and turnout (64 per cent) were even higher than for the 2015 referendum on marriage equality for same-sex couples. Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland, was the only area with a ‘No’ vote overall. The highest ‘Yes’ vote was found in the capital (at 78 per cent for Dublin Bay South). The demographic shift in attitudes was highlighted by the fact that 87 per cent of 18-24 year-olds voted ‘Yes’. Turnout among women was much higher than at previous general elections, testifying to their high level of engagement with a mobilisation that was not only led but also driven by women across the country. Male participation, on the other hand, was lower, as some men viewed the question as a ‘women’s issue’ and chose to stay away.
The surprise with which the result was greeted shows the monumental shift in public attitudes and opinions in Ireland. This shift had been under-estimated by campaigners and policy-makers too, long reluctant to touch the issue of abortion, regarding it as too politically sensitive. As Minister for Health Simon Harris put it while the final votes were being counted, “the people led, and the politicians followed.”
Breaking the silence
The 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution, equating the right to life of the ‘unborn’ with that of the mother, was introduced in 1983 following a referendum. Although abortion had been illegal in Ireland since the foundation of the state, the constitutional amendment was put forward in the wake of liberalisation of abortion regimes in Britain, the EU, and the US. Rights organisations both within and outside of Ireland, backed by the UN, concluded that Ireland’s abortion laws were leading to serious human rights violations as the situation systematically discriminated against women and girls, interfered with their right to privacy and autonomy, as well as their right to medical treatment, and generally amounted to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. “I think everyone agrees that the law as it stands is unfit for purpose and not satisfactory from any point of view,” said Seána Glennon, a member of lawyers for choice and solicitor from Longford. The women most affected by the restrictions are often the most vulnerable women, those “who can’t afford to travel or asylum seekers under Direct Provision who can’t leave the country to get an abortion, some of whom might have fled because they were raped,” she added.
“The 8th was part of the secrecy and hypocrisy that characterised this era,” explained former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness at a public event in central Dublin a few days ahead of the vote, “There is less secrecy in Ireland today – since the facts about women traveling and taking abortion pills have to be accepted – but the hypocrisy is alive and flourishing, and takes the form of accepting but ignoring Irish women’s abortions.” Since 1980, at least 170 000 Irish women have travelled to the UK for abortions and it is estimated that every day an average of three women take abortion pills ordered online, with no medical support or supervision at home. Taking these pills carries a 14-year jail sentence. Many in the medical profession are deeply ashamed of this situation, as it prevents them from being able to provide care or even proper information to patients. “These women are committing a crime, so of course they won’t go to their doctors,” said Veronica O’Keane of Doctors for Choice, speaking at a public meeting in Coolock at the end of April. “In Ireland we have been indulging in a psychotic fantasy that it isn’t happening, but it is happening – we need to wake up to reality and support women already having abortions.”
“The women most affected by the restrictions are often the most vulnerable women.”
Although campaigners had been active for decades, a number of high-profile cases contributed to putting repeal on the public agenda. The most notable was the case of Savita Halappanavar who died in October 2012 after being denied a termination, sparking outrage and calls for change. Vigils and protests were held, and the annual ‘marches for choice’ saw their numbers skyrocket. In response, the government held a ‘Citizens assembly’ which brought together a representative sample of 100 citizens who were presented with facts, and listened to people from all sides of the debate. This process generated scepticism among those who saw it merely as a delaying tactic. However, in a crucial turn of events, the assembly came back with a series of far-reaching recommendations submitted at the end of June 2017, advocating a liberalisation of abortion laws that by far exceeded most expectations. A cross-party parliamentary committee was then appointed, which reviewed these recommendations and set out a legislative framework. In a somewhat scaled-back proposal, this involved access to abortion without restriction up until 12 weeks and afterwards only in limited circumstances, bringing Ireland in line with most other EU countries. But despite its conservative nature, many still feared a tough fight ahead to win public approval for the proposal.
Building a Green consensus
Ireland’s Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, along with almost all other political parties, called for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum and campaigned as part of a broad ‘Together for Yes’ coalition. Yet the party’s stance on the issue of choice has not always been so clear cut. “Among Greens it is a complex issue and there have always been people of different views,” explained Eamon Ryan, party leader and one of the two Green TDs (members of the Irish Parliament), “Like the country we came round in recent years, and wrote a new policy. It was contentious but in the end we had a very clear decision and our policy now very much mirrors what will be in the legislation.”
The party’s youth wing was instrumental in changing party policy. “Up until maybe three years ago, the Greens in Ireland had always taken a free vote on the issue of abortion and left it as a matter of conscience for individual members,” said O’Gorman. “But in the last few years, seeing the damage that the absolute ban on abortion was doing, with the death of Savita and so on, particularly our youth branch said it was time for the party to take a more active and clear stance on the issue. That was quite a significant change over the course of a few years and brought the party more in line with the policy of Greens across Europe.”
Greens outside of Ireland also offered their support to the party. Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, sent a message recalling the fact that if the status quo was maintained, it would still effectively be politicians in Westminster regulating abortion for Irish citizens, given the numbers of women travelling to the UK for terminations. Although this solidarity was welcome, Greens in Ireland were cautious about any statements from abroad. “We didn’t want a sense of other people forcing their views on Ireland,” explains O’Gorman, “So it was good support but I think people realised that getting too involved risked being counter-productive.”
Campaigning in the ‘post-truth’ era
Foreign interference and misinformation online were some of the main pitfalls that risked undermining the public debate around the referendum, particularly in light of the recent evidence of manipulation from abroad in other referendums and elections worldwide. This prompted Irish Times columnist Hugh Linehan to ask: “Is Ireland ready for its first post-truth referendum campaign?” As the campaigning got underway, alarm bells began ringing about the level of campaigning from abroad on both sides and calls were made for assurances that this would be kept in check. In the wake of allegations of election interference through social media, Facebook announced it would block all foreign spending on advertising around the referendum in an effort to adhere to the country’s election spending laws (which prohibit donations from non-Irish bodies or citizens). A few days later, Google went one step further and banned all adverts relating to the Irish abortion referendum. The decision was hailed as historic by the ‘Yes’ side, although some still feared the bans could be bypassed through legal loopholes.
The strong Irish tradition of door-to-door canvassing may have helped undermine any such attempts. “That’s part of our democratic process,” explained Ryan, “What’s good about canvassing is that it is done in a respectful way that minimises the division that can sometimes come out of difficult, complex political issues.” For Ryan, canvassing was crucial to make sure the vote was based on a meaningful national conversation: “Getting people involved, having people knocking on doors, getting the debate happening, is a really healthy exercise. Even if it’s not the most decisive factor influencing vote overall, as many people may have already made up their minds, but by doing that you raise the quality and level of debate in general.”
“What’s good about canvassing is that it is done in a respectful way that minimises the division that can sometimes come out of difficult, complex political issues.”
The number of women who came forward to share their own personal stories during the campaign also proved decisive. Floods of powerful testimonials were published on social media, including devastating cases of women forced to travel for terminations of pregnancies even where a fatal foetal abnormality meant the baby would not survive after birth, because doctors were unable to act in Ireland if a heartbeat could still be detected. Mary McDermott set up one such platform Everyday Stories – a website collecting stories from women about how they had been affected by the 8th amendment: “I think the likes of [everyday stories] can complement face-to-face conversations that people might be having with loved ones – and bring it back to the realities that real women have faced.” In response to criticism that this approach appealed to emotion rather than factual arguments, she said: “There is a factual side and an emotional one. We are human beings and it is an emotional decision. The other side are also free to tell their stories. It’s not about manipulating anyone but about opening up people’s eyes.”
The ‘No’ campaign used its own appeals to emotion, sometimes employing shorthand judged to be misleading or insensitive. These tactics included putting up posters showing foetuses – even in proximity to maternity hospitals – and claims that the proposal would legalise abortion up to six months and make Ireland the most liberal regime in Europe. Some campaign materials also featured disabled children and claims that conditions such as Down Syndrome had been all but eradicated in countries where abortion was available. These myths were repeatedly debunked and many felt the use of graphic imagery and false claims discredited the ‘No’ side in the eyes of voters. A notable aspect of the ‘No’ side’s campaign was its ostensible secularism and absence of any overt appeals to religion to support their argument – in contrast to the 1983 referendum campaign. The contrast was a strong indication that the authority of the Catholic Church has significantly diminished in Irish public life in the wake of numerous scandals and cover-ups over the years.
Bigger than Ireland
Unlike many countries, Ireland does not allow its citizens living abroad to vote. Irish nationals lose eligibility after having been outside of the country for 18 months. Given the size of the Irish diaspora, this is perhaps not surprising, yet for many Irish emigrants this disenfranchisement deprives them of their right to have a say in the political development of a country to which they still feel deeply connected. The ‘Home to vote’ movement, which began during the marriage equality referendum campaign, mobilised eligible Irish citizens abroad, and encouraged them to travel back to Ireland for the referendum. Those who had lost their vote contributed too, by founding ‘Repeal’ groups around the world to support the campaign, organise solidarity actions, and assist eligible voters making the journey home. Although the ‘No’ side also managed to mobilise some support outside Ireland, the great majority were on the ‘Yes’ side, leading some to warn that it could lead to a challenge from the ‘No’ campaign if there was evidence of a large number of ineligible voters returning to vote.
Ailbhe Finn, who has been campaigning from Brussels for years, said “Repeal Brussels was one of the first repeal global groups – there are now about 27, from Guatemala to Australia. It was hard to predict so many people would get behind it, but I’m so glad we were able to show that people still care about Ireland.” For those on the ground such as O’Gorman, it was “a very motivating factor and moral boost to see so many people making long journeys to come home.”
“With all of this power that we have now, we can move mountains.”
For the Greens and women’s rights campaigners, however, the work continues. “It’s not as if we’re in nirvana now,” Ryan pointed out, “how can you have free choice in pregnancy if you can’t get housing, for instance […] so there are other things we have to do.” Bolstered by its victory, campaigners from ‘Together for Yes’ are also looking ahead, and calls have already been made for change in Northern Ireland where abortion remains illegal. It is hoped that beyond the political reverberations of this historic result, the activists who made it possible – many of them young women not previously involved in politics – will channel their enthusiasm and energy into bringing about further progressive change in Ireland.
Having lived through two life-changing referendums in the space of three years, Finn is confident that further positive change is on the horizon. “First it came as a trickle, then a stream, then an unstoppable wave of change and progress in Ireland, and it’s not stopping here. Ireland needs to be fairer, more inclusive, to fix all the things that were broken, and this vote shows we have a majority to do that – that we are compassionate, progressive people. I think that with all of this power that we have now, we can move mountains.”