Ireland: Momentum for change grows ahead of abortion vote

April 6, 2018
A pro-choice rally demands repeal of the Eighth Amendment that bans abortions.

Campaigning for a woman right’s to choose in Ireland has stepped up since the announcement of the date and wording of a referendum on changing the constitution to allow abortion.

The referendum, to be held on May 25, will ask voters whether to repeal the section of the Irish constitution that bans abortion. If passed, it would allow parliament to make laws to regulate the procedure.

Abortion is currently banned by the constitution under the Eighth Amendment, which was adopted by referendum in 1983.

Shauna Stanley of the Melbourne Irish Abortion Rights Campaign said the impetus for the Eighth Amendment was the Roe v Wade ruling in the United States. Anti-abortion activists in Ireland wanted to prevent similar judicial intervention making abortion accessible to women in Ireland.

Growing campaign

Pro-choice campaigners have waged a campaign for more than 30 years, beginning with the “No” campaign in that referendum. Their continued efforts have borne fruit in a change in public attitudes, constitutional and legal change and now the growing call to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Attempts by the state to restrict pregnant women’s access to information about abortion and right to travel to obtain abortion were overturned by successive referenda. These added two further amendments to the constitution.

These provisions have given those needing abortion some protection. However, as many abortion rights campaigners point out, abortion is a problem Ireland simply exports.

As a result of the ban, an estimated 4000 women and non-binary or trans people travel abroad (mostly to Britain, but also the Netherlands and France) each year to obtain abortions. Up to 2000 risk a 14-year jail term by taking medications obtained online to induce abortion.

The number of those who are unable to obtain abortion and simply continue a crisis pregnancy, with all the impacts that has, is unknown.

Ireland’s abortion ban is among the strictest in the world. It is extensive, with few exceptions.

The impact of the ban on abortion is not only felt by women who are simply not ready for parenting, or who cannot manage for socioeconomic reasons, but also those who have conceived from rape, are in coercive or violent relationships, or have serious but not life-threatening health problems.

Tragic death

The constitution refers to the “equal right” to life of the mother. However, the chilling effect of the abortion ban on healthcare providers and institutions is so extreme that in 2012, it led to the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was miscarrying.

Although Halappanavar was told her miscarriage was inevitable and requested medical intervention to empty her uterus, it was refused on the basis that there was still a foetal heartbeat. This was despite her condition deteriorating as she developed an overwhelming infection as a result of the miscarriage.

Halappanavar’s death galvanised community opposition to the abortion ban, with huge and growing annual marches for choice.

A 2013 law, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, subsequently codified that threats to the woman’s life (as distinct from health) — including the risk of suicide — would constitute grounds for abortion.

Attempts by parliament to widen eligibility of people who could become pregnant have been struck down by the courts because of the constitutional protection of the foetus. Stanley said this has led the pro-choice movement to focus on calls to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Stanley said the campaign started to gain more momentum in 2016. Recognising the centenary of the Easter Rising against British rule, the Abortion Rights Campaign organised around the slogan “Rise and Repeal”. This linked the campaign for abortion rights to republican tradition and Ireland's history of struggle against oppression.

The campaign emphasised that the proclamation by the Rising’s leaders emphasised equal rights for all Irish men and women — something still clearly denied to half the population a century later.

In the same period, the Repeal Project apparel campaign took off. Black jumpers with the word “repeal” on them spread the message and sparked conversations among people who might not have identified with more traditional political campaign activism.

During the Polish “Black Friday” women's strike in 2016, in response to the Polish government’s threat to wind back the country’s limited rights to abortion, members of the Polish diaspora within Ireland mobilised in solidarity. Inspired by this action, the abortion rights movement in Ireland held a women’s strike on International Women’s Day (IWD) last year. Women wore black and stayed away from work.

Rising support

In line with the rising activism and campaign visibility, opinion polls in recent years have shown majority support for liberalising access to abortion.

With the campaign for reform gaining traction, the issue was referred to the Irish Citizens’ Assembly. This is an exercise in deliberative democracy in which a random selection of citizens are tasked with making recommendations about a range of issues. In April last year, the assembly voted to recommend a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment and allow the government to legislate to regulate abortion.

In response, Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkhar announced last September that a referendum would be held this year.

Announcement of the exact timing and wording of the referendum was delayed while the government awaited a Supreme Court ruling on whether the constitution provides for any foetal rights other than the right to life. On March 6, the Supreme Court ruled there are no other foetal rights under the constitution than the right to life, paving the way for the referendum.

On IWD (March 8), the Irish government successfully introduced the legislation to hold the referendum. The government has pledged that if the referendum is passed, it will introduce legislation to replace the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. Its proposed legislation would decriminalise abortion and introduce laws that make abortion readily available in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with restrictions thereafter.

On March 22, Together4Yes, a coalition of more than 70 groups across Ireland, launched its campaign, modelled on Ireland’s successful marriage equality campaign. In the lead-up to the launch, member organisations trained canvassers and recruited volunteers to undertake the task of doorknocking and engaging people across the country, with a focus on the undecided.

The breadth of support for the campaign is evident in the packed calendar of campaign activities around Ireland. These range from art installations, public meetings and campaign stalls to punk gigs, singalongs, story-telling and comedy shows.

Global campaigning

The campaign is not limited to Ireland. In 2016, the online campaign Repeal Global was initiated to call and coordinate solidarity actions to coincide with the major annual marches for choice.

Just like during the marriage equality campaign, there are campaign committees in the Irish diaspora around the world. The London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign launched a #hometovote campaign urging eligible voters around the world to make plans to travel back to take part in the referendum.

In Australia, campaign events have included rallies in Melbourne in solidarity with the marches for choice in Ireland in 2016 and 2017, as well as actions in Sydney, Perth and Darwin. The Melbourne Irish Abortion Rights Campaign formed a contingent calling for “Repeal of the Eighth” to join in Melbourne’s IWD march last year.

In the countdown to the referendum, Stanley said, the campaign focus is on fundraising. “Living in Australia, it would cost $2000 to return to Ireland to vote. Irish citizens who have been out of the country for 18 months aren’t allowed to vote.

“Many of us are going to return to Ireland some day. And we want to return to an Ireland that has proper health care. If you need an abortion, you should be able to get it in your home country.

“We want to do something. Even if we can’t vote, we can raise money to support the campaign. We want to reach out to members of the Irish diaspora in other cities, to support them to be part of the campaign — whether it's organising fundraisers, or participating in the social media campaigns, or encouraging them to talk with their grandparents back home.”

Stanley said the group also wants to support the campaigns for abortion rights across Australia. “We’d like to support organising solidarity in the states where abortion is legal, to help the campaigns in New South Wales and Queensland, where it's not.”

[Find out more about the Melbourne Irish Abortion Rights Campaign via the Facebook group Irish Pro Choice in Oz.]

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