Ireland: Celebrations as vote overturns abortion ban

As the results of the Irish abortion referendum were announced on May 26, registering a big win for repealing a constitutional ban on abortion, scenes of celebration were shared around the world.

The “yes” vote registered a smashing majority of 66.4%. Voter turnout was just above 64% — higher than for the 2015 marriage equality campaign and the third-highest for any referendum in Ireland.

With 1,429,981 votes for repeal, campaign group Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) Ireland points out, more votes were cast to remove the amendment than were cast to insert the ban into the constitution in 1983.

The Eighth Amendment, as it was known, recognised the “right to life” of the foetus as equal to the right to life of the pregnant person.

Under the ban, abortion has been subjected to a comprehensive ban, even in cases of risk to the woman’s health, conception from rape, and when fatal foetal anomaly has been diagnosed.

Thousands of women travel abroad every year to obtain abortions in the Britain and Europe. Thousands more risk a 14-year jail term by procuring an illegal abortion using imported medications without medical supervision.

Savita’s death

The high-profile death of migrant dentist Savita Halappanava in 2012 from septic miscarriage was attributed to the ban. Legal uncertainty led to delays in emptying her uterus while a foetal heartbeat was detected — even though her miscarriage was deemed inevitable and became the cause of her overwhelming infection.

Halappanava’s death caused widespread outrage, and became the trigger for legislative reform and the push to repeal the constitutional ban. Expressing his gratitude for a “yes” vote, her father Andanappa Yalagi told the media: ““We are really, really happy. We have one last request, that the new law, that it is called ‘Savita’s law’. It should be named for her.”

After a series of public mobilisations after Halappanava’s unnecessary death, the issue was referred to the Irish Citizens' Assembly, which recommended a referendum to repeal the constitutional amendment and allow the government to make laws regulating abortion.

The government announced that if the amendment was repealed, it would introduce legislation to allow abortion freely up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, for medical reasons (with two doctors’ agreement) up to 24 weeks, and for fatal foetal anomaly after that. It has pledged to introduce the legislation this year, and plans to establish services in Ireland next year.

The No campaign mobilised with images of foetuses, attempts to equate foetal life with the lives of children and pregnant women, misleading advertising claiming the government’s proposed legislation would allow abortion up to six months, and claims to “love both” — arguing for adoption instead of abortion.

A statement issued by the Adoption Rights Alliance noted the offensive irony of the No camp slogan “Love Both”. As advocates for those adopted under Ireland's closed, forced adoption system, they pointed out that none of the adopted people they have been in contact with over two decades have ever been offered support by anti-abortion organisations.

Similarly, it was anti-abortion crusaders who persecuted pregnant women and gave cover to the forced incarceration of unmarried pregnant women and girls (and those considered “at risk” of pregnancy outside marriage) in the Magdalene Laundries and other institutions. There, they were forced to give birth and relinquish their babies for adoption.

Indeed, Adopted People for Yes was one of the 97 groups that joined the umbrella Together for Yes group.

The Yes campaign was marked by stalls, fundraisers, rallies, public statements and social media outreach. Perhaps most striking was the mobilising of volunteers to canvas for votes. The Yes volunteers knocked on 500,000 doors, or about a third of all households in the country.

In public and in private, people facing crisis pregnancy told their stories of stigma and isolation travelling for abortion care; of taking medications to induce abortion without medical assistance; and of being denied care in their home country when faced with a diagnosis of severe foetal health problems that would inevitably result in stillbirth or the death of the baby if born.

Grassroots campaign

After the results were announced, ARC said: “Today’s results show what we in ARC have seen around the country for the last 6 years — that the people of Ireland were hungry for change. The grassroots community-led organising at the heart of ARC has been a huge part of the campaign’s appeal across all groups and communities.

“We especially acknowledge the work of migrants who did not have a vote and who were disproportionately affected by the Eighth, as well as the many trans and non-binary people affected.

“This result is bigger than Ireland: we know the world watches us as abortion access is being eroded in other places. Ireland now has the opportunity to be a beacon to the world in terms of respect for people who can get pregnant.”

Calls have already been made for Britain to liberalise abortion access in Northern Ireland — the six Irish counties Britain still claims, but where Britain’s laws allowing access to abortion do not apply. The issue has been devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont (which is not functioning), and remains banned by an 1861 law. A rally of hundreds launched the campaign in Belfast on May 28.

Northern Ireland-based Alliance for Choice campaigner Danielle Roberts responded to the vote in the south: “We are proud to have played a small part in solidarity campaigning with our friends in Ireland ... We also gratefully acknowledge the offers we have already had, in solidarity from the south, to work towards the change that is still so urgently needed in Northern Ireland.”

Another rally was held the same day in Brisbane in Australia. Buoyed by the victory in Ireland, sixty people gathered to call for repeal of Queensland's abortion laws — also modelled on the British 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act.

[Kamala Emanuel is an abortion provider involved in the campaign for law reform in Queensland, and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]