(The referendum happened over four weeks ago and I have spent almost that long writing this blog post. When I started writing about this, I discovered that I had a lot to say on the issue and it took some time to wrangle all those words and feelings into something interesting and coherent and not 5,000 words long, but it felt worth doing.)
There has been so much written about the results of the referendum on May 25th and the work that was done in the lead-up to it. A lot of it was incredibly heartfelt and very moving but there was also some sniping about how the (incredibly successful) campaign was run and how “inappropriate” and “disrespectful” it was to celebrate that glorious, surprising victory on May 25. I find it incredible that anyone thinks they can tell people not to celebrate after years of hard work, of time and energy dedicated to removing something that has caused so much hurt to so many people. It takes a certain type of personality to dictate to anyone what an “appropriate” reaction looks like, and I believe if the photos taken in Dublin Castle on May 26th were not predominately of young women, those articles would not have been written.
I’ve written a number of posts about the Eighth Amendment: about the Citizen’s Assembly, my own feelings about abortion and reproductive rights and the Artist’s Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and so it felt important, and appropriate, to write something about the result of the referendum. I also wanted to write about why this referendum result is something to be celebrated, and how people in power would do better to listen to women instead of telling them what is and isn’t appropriate.
In her essay I Wish Ann Lovett Were Out Buying a Swimsuit for Lanzarote, Emer O’Toole writes beautifully about the Ireland that existed when the Eighth Amendment went in to the Constitution and the journey the country has taken since then. I’m not going to go back that far. Change in Ireland has been slow and gradual since then but on this issue a tipping point was reached in 2012 and things started to pick up speed.
In February 2012, recently elected TD Clare Daly brought a bill to the Dail to legislate on the X case and allow for abortions in limited circumstances. There was little interest from the rest of the government and the bill went nowhere. Six months later in September 2012, the first March for Choice was organised by the newly formed Abortion Rights Campaign. It was pretty small. We lined up at the Spire, in the middle of O’Connell Street, and heard a few speeches before marching to the Dail. It was a warm, sunny day and a good-spirited march. It couldn’t have been more different to the protests held in response to the death of Savita Hallpanaver later that year.
I remember standing in my kitchen, hearing for the first time how Savita died. I remember feeling both heart-broken and furious that this had been allowed to happen to her. There was also the question of how many other women had this happened to. I walked into work that morning still furious. That fury didn’t go away and after work I went down to the Dail with a couple of friends, joining the many who had gathered there already, in the cold and the dark. A hastily organised gathering; we didn’t know what to do but knew we had to do something. It was the first of many protests that winter, the numbers growing week by week as we stood in the dark, holding candles, feeling the cold damp through our shoes, chanting “Never Again”.
The death of Savita and the public outcry that followed forced the government’s hand on abortion. Twenty years after that ruling, they would finally legislate on the X Case. It was not something that would have saved Savita or any other woman in her situation, but as we learnt over the next five years, very little could be done through legislation while the Eighth Amendment was in the constitution.
The debate around that legislation meant more protests outside the Dail the following summer and resulted in the woefully inadequate Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. This made abortion possible if a woman was suicidal as a result of the pregnancy. It came with a number of restrictions, and also stuck in the fourteen year jail sentence for anyone who has an abortion in the State if their life was not at risk, and seven years for anyone who helped them.
There was also the distraction of “Lapgate“; the incident in the Dáil when a female TD aas pulled into a lap of a male colleague, he described it as “horseplay”. That this happened in a work place, during a debate about female health that was being broadcast live on tv (the incident took place at 3am but a sharp-eyed viewer caught it and shared it online) gives an insight into how the Irish state and members of government viewed women at the time.
A few months after the bill passed, the devastatingly sad case of Ms Y showed that it was not fit for purpose. Ms Y was a refugee who came to Ireland seeking asylum. When she arrived in Ireland she discovered she was pregnant as a result of rape in her home country. She asked for an abortion and was refused. She was suicidal as a result of the pregnancy and the lack of help she had received from the place she had fled to seeking shelter and compassion. She was suicidal enough to be locked in a psychiatric ward but not enough to “qualify” for an abortion, and eventually, the State performed a C-section at 25 weeks. A caesarean section is a major surgical operation. It has a much longer recovery period than a medical or even surgical abortion, and it was a treatment she only consented to under enormous pressure because she didn’t want to be pregnant anymore. The Irish State really has an incredibly long track-record of torturing women, particularly the women in its care. Earlier this month the HSE has admitted liability and said it is willing to compensate Ms Y for failing to provide her with an abortion when she first sought one.
Then at the end of 2014, we learnt of Ms P, a woman being kept on life-support because she was pregnant and doctors were unsure if they could withdraw treatment under the Eighth Amendment because it would end the pregnancy. Like in Savita’s case, the pregnancy was never going to end in a successful delivery but because there was a fetal heart-beat the doctors’ hands were tied. This was always the big problem with the Eighth Amendment; it didn’t allow for a case by case assessment of the situation, for doctors to use their own judgement. Once there was a fetal heart-beat, doctors were limited in what they could do for the woman, her life and health immediately had to be balanced with that of the “unborn”.
These were the most public instances of the hurt and distress caused by the Eighth Amendment over a three years period but they were not the only ones. In 2015 other women started sharing their abortion stories. The X-lie Project began collecting and sharing stories and images of Irish women who had had abortions. Within a few weeks of each other in September of that year, Tara Flynn and Roisin Ingle spoke publicly about their abortions. Maser’s mural went up on the wall of Project Arts Centre and was removed after a couple of weeks, which got a lot of people talking. The Repeal Project was launched and those stark black jumpers starting appearing all over the place, and starting conversations. Una Mullally made a radio documentary for the Irish Times Womens’ podcast called The Year The Converstaion Changed, which captures the shift in attitudes towards abortion and the need for change.
But the big moment in 2015 was the success of the Marriage Equality Referendum. Ireland was finally coming out of the long shadow of the church and it felt like change was possible in a really tangible way. It galvanised people to push for change in other areas. The government couldn’t keep pretending abortion wasn’t a political issue. They couldn’t keep hoping it would just go away. At the same time, it was still a contentious issue that nobody wanted to make a decision on, so they gave it to the Citizen’s Assembly.
Though derided as a delaying tactic, the Citizen’s Assembly turned out to be pretty amazing. There was an incredible investment from the citizens themselves; when they asked for an extra weekend to be added to the schedule and when on the final day, they ran over time as they added more questions to their ballot on issues such as abortion for socioeconomic reasons. I was surprised and amazed and delighted with the final results when 64% voted for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. I love Ellen Coyne’s article about some of those citizens on referendum day, when a similar result was returned.
The result from the Citizens’ Assembly was very clear. They were clear that the Eighth Amendment (or article 40.3.3 which was what they actually voted on, and which contains the Eighth Amendment) was not adequate, and they were clear about what should replace it. However, the government were not convinced by it and set up the Joint Oireachtas Committee to look again at the evidence. The majority of the Committee came to the same conclusion and the date for the referendum was finally set for May 25th, thirteen months after the Citizen’s Assembly returned their findings.
Once the referendum date was announced, campaigning could officially begin and Together For Yes was launched. Abortion Rights Campaign and Repeal groups around the country quickly came under the Together for Yes banner. This meant the campaign had a country-wide reach within days. These local groups organised training sessions for canvassers where they collected names and numbers for Whatsapp groups so people could keep in touch with others in their area and create their own canvassing groups. It truly was a grass-roots campaign with local groups and people on the ground empowered to get out there and make things happen.
For me, one of the most memorable and moving days of the campaign was the launch of Together for Yes’s crowd-funding campaign. The original aim was to raise €50,000 in seven days. It was done in less than an hour. The target was raised and smashed again and that kept happening over and over again throughout the day. It was incredible to watch the money pouring in. You could press refresh and watch the total jump €100 every 30 seconds. This was tangible proof of the support for the Together for Yes campaign and it was so uplifting to see. It was particularly satisfying coming a couple of days after an article in the Irish Times saying there was “No sense of urgency” in the Yes camp. Other voices in the media described the Yes side as complacent. This outpouring of money, in small amounts and big, did not lack urgency. The car-share groups heading out of Dublin to canvass in other smaller towns did not feel complacent. The fundraising to bring people home to vote did not feel complacent. The anxious and urgent conversations being had at home and at work did not feel complacent. It felt good to watch the total rise and read the comments people left and know that it wasn’t just your family and friends who felt like this, there were lots of others out there who felt as strongly.
Many of those people did much, much than to a crowd-funding campaign. There were people out canvassing around the country every night of the week, others working in the Together for Yes HQ, all finding time around work and family commitments to volunteer. They did it because this was important to them. They didn’t want to live in a country that would let a woman die in pain rather than perform an abortion, or one that could commit a woman to a psychiatric ward for wanting an abortion, or that would torture a grieving family by insisting that their loved one had to remain on life-support because of her pregnancy. On May 26th 2018 we moved away from being that country, and what’s worth celebrating.
That Saturday, the Taoiseach described the success of the Yes campaign as a “quiet revolution”. Those involved in the campaign have loudly shouted down this assessment. It wasn’t quiet when thousands took to the streets for the massive March for Choice in 2016. It wasn’t quiet on O’Connell Bridge during Strike for Repeal in 2017. The hum of anxiety we felt during the last week before the Referendum didn’t feel quiet. And there was nothing quiet about the hundreds of women who told their stories over and over again; stories of being abandoned by the medical profession, of being forced to travel for health care, of not feeling welcome in their own country. Those women gave up their privacy because they wanted to make Ireland a better place and I am so grateful to them for that. I am grateful to women in the public eye who “came out” about their abortions and heart-broken that they suffered vicious attacks as a result. I am grateful to women who shared their stories online in the last few weeks of the campaign in the hope of changing a few minds. Their willingness to share their private medical histories are what won the referendum. 66% of people who voted Yes said that it was because of the personal stories they heard.
Describing all that as “quiet” just means Leo Varadkar wasn’t listening. Let’s hope that when they are drafting the abortion legislation, he will listen a little more attentively to the people it’s going to affect. The fight for free, safe, legal abortion is far from over and that’s another reason why it was necessary to celebrate on May 26th. The referendum was one major hurdle that had to be passed but there is still so much to do. May 26th was a brief breathing space before we get on to the next thing.
The next thing is getting good, working legislation that makes abortion accessible to all, particularly in terms of cost and location. There are many things that still need to be decided on, things like exclusion zones, waiting periods and conscientious objectors. We need to keep the pressure on to ensure that abortion services are available by the end of the year. That is still the government’s aim, but we now know that the legislation will not be introduced to the Dáil before the summer break.
The next March for Choice is on September 29th and the Abortion Rights Campaign will be holding open meetings about the organisation of the March over the coming months. Dates and venues are usually listed on their Facebook events page. Of course, until the legislation is in place, women will still be forced to travel and the Abortion Support Network is still taking calls from women who need their help to do that. You can support their work by donating here.
Repealing the Eighth Amendment was a glorious thing. It was a wonderful thing to be part of and definitely worth celebrating. It is also a great reminder that change is possible. In 2012, the majority of TDs in the Dáil had no interest in making abortion accessible to Irish women. It was hard-working and persistent campaign groups and ordinary people who made them take an interest, made them call a referendum and made sure that we got the right result!