The Irish abortion rights victory: not a “quiet revolution”
On Friday, May 25, the Irish electorate voted by an extraordinary two-to-one majority to legalize abortion in a historic referendum outcome. The result, with a powerful note of symmetry, reversed the results of the original referendum that introduced Ireland’s constitutional prohibition on abortion, known as the eighth amendment: In 1983, 66.9 percent of the electorate supported its insertion into the constitution; 35 years later, 66.4 percent voted to repeal it. Ireland’s Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, described the Yes result as the culmination of a “quiet revolution.” But I believe that Varadkar fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the shift that has taken place in Irish society over the past decade and mischaracterizes the nature of the repeal campaign.
This was no quiet revolution. It was a revolution 35 years in the making, fired by a sense of righteous anger against decades of state-sanctioned misogyny; where women were incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes and whose children were considered “little more than a commodity for trade among religious orders.” The Irish State has long forced women to live their lives invisible, regulated to the margins, or to exist in what artists Sarah Browne and Jessie Jones have termed “in the shadow of the state.”
But following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar from sepsis in 2012, after having been repeatedly denied an abortion because, as she was told, “this is a Catholic country,” the movement to repeal the eighth amendment has gone from strength to strength. It moved from the cities and universities to towns and villages across the country, led by a new generation of activists, energized by international movements like Me Too and the Women’s Strike and inspired by the participation in the 2015 marriage equality referendum victory. It found much of its creativity and energy from a generation of young women who were no longer prepared to be treated as second-class citizens or have bodies considered as little more than vessels by a misogynistic state.
It also felt as if, after Savita’s death, women found their courage and their voice, coming forward to tell their own abortion stories. In a country where sex and abortion have for too long been shrouded in shame and secrecy, this proved to be revolutionary. These stories would become the heart of the repeal movement and allow Irish people to reclaim the humanity of the abortion debate. As the novelist Anne Enright wrote after the result: “How did we turn ourselves from fallen women into women rising? By telling the truth. It was that simple.”
When the referendum was announced earlier this year, media and political commentators predicted a divisive and antagonistic debate. Certainly those opposed to the referendum did their best to oblige, with a No campaign explicitly designed to peddle myths and misinformation and create a climate of fear and distrust. They suggested that abortions would happen “on demand” up to six months; that all pregnancies diagnosed with Down syndrome would be automatically terminated; and that most women essentially have abortions on a whim. Utilizing tactics employed by the Brexit and Trump campaigns, they attempted to position themselves as “anti-establishment,” mobilizing the genuine sense of disenchantment with the establishment and mainstream politicians that exists in Ireland following many years of austerity. But this time their strategy failed, and they found themselves conceding ground, again and again.
It is true to say that many people who supported the referendum would never characterize themselves as “pro-abortion,” but they did acknowledge that abortion is part of life in Ireland. They understood that there is a categorical difference between personally opposing abortion and requiring that the State actively intervene to prevent women accessing abortions or forcing them to continue their pregnancies against their will. They also acknowledged that while abortion is illegal, it has nevertheless long been part of the lived experiences of women living in Ireland. Every day at least nine women travel abroad to Britain for abortion services, and between two and three women will use the abortion pill. Women who access the abortion pill are often most vulnerable. These are women and girls who cannot afford to travel or who do not have the necessary travel papers to leave the State. Instead they access these pills clandestinely online, despite this carrying a potential 14-year prison sentence. This state-sanctioned hypocrisy had been the status quo for more than four decades, and most people recognized that this indifference, what was known as the “Irish solution to an Irish problem,” could no longer be permitted to continue.
The Repeal campaign itself was a genuinely grassroots movement that involved on-the-ground work by thousands of people, mainly young and female, people who are typically characterized by professional political operatives as “politically inexperienced.” It was a campaign run by women: from the leadership level of the national “Together for Yes” campaign, to the local campaign groups operating on the ground, night and night going door to door, talking to voters. This type of leadership and activism is largely invisible to media and political commentators, who are conditioned to view political issues through a largely male, conservative, and party-political focused lens. One of the most interesting things about the Repeal campaign is that it occurred at a moment when mainstream democratic politics have rarely seemed more fragile. It did not fall foul of the tactics of right-wing populism, in particular the now-familiar strategies of “alternative facts” and social media manipulation. Instead, the Yes campaign focused on factual arguments, supported by doctors and grounded in women’s experiences. The campaign also embodied many of the ideals of civic and political engagement, offering people a genuine sense of participatory democracy. This was confirmed by the widespread reaction to the result, with people expressing a genuine sense of ownership over the process and result of the referendum campaign.
The reverberations of the result extend beyond abortion and Ireland. In the days after the vote, there were calls to accelerate the separation of Church and State, ending the Catholic Church’s control over schools and hospitals. After the referendum results were announced in Dublin, the crowd began shouting, “The North in next!” So now the British government is being been forced to look at legalizing abortion in Northern Ireland on the same grounds as it is available in the rest of the United Kingdom. It has offered hope to other countries, such as Poland, El Salvador, and the United States, where the right is also attempting to push back abortion rights. The Irish Repeal demonstrated that it is possible to create change; to make a progressive and popular case for abortion access and to have that campaign enthusiastically endorsed by a majority of the people.
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