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.
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 the next day. Although many expected it would pass, few predicted such a landslide. “We were confident of a win,” said Green Party Councillor Roderic O’Gorman, “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: “The people led, and the politicians followed.”
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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. The women most affected by the restrictions are often the most vulnerable, 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.
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.. 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.
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.
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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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.
Finn is confident that this 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.”
This is an edited and abridged version of an article first published by the Green European Journal