Science, Medicine & Health

Will it be Repeal or Retain? The Irish Referendum on Abortion

The Republic of Ireland now stands on the brink of another major chapter in its journey out of the long shadow of the Catholic Church and the forces of social conservatism. The last was the successful outcome of the Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015, which legalised same-sex marriage. This time around, the issue is abortion. On 25 May 2018, voters will decide whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment (Article 40.3.3) to the Constitution, inserted in 1983 following a bitterly divisive campaign to ‘copper-fasten’ already-existing draconian legislation outlawing abortion in virtually all circumstances. The amendment constitutionalised Irish law on abortion and equated the life of the born (the mother) with the unborn (the foetus) from the moment of conception, thereby granting the latter equal civil rights.

Speaking of IMELDA’s ‘The Quiet Woman’ and #knickersforchoice campaign in 2014. Credit: Kevin Biderman.

Opinion polls show broad support for some liberalisation of abortion law. However, there is considerable uncertainty over removing the constitutional safeguard. The question being posed in the referendum is not just a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to removing the Eighth Amendment; it also solicits the electorate’s agreement to permit the Oireachtas (government) to legislate for abortion, rather than hold another plebiscite on new provisions. In 2017, a specially convened Citizens’ Assembly, comprising randomly-selected citizens and a government-appointed chairperson, recommended that future government legislation allow unrestricted access to abortion up to the twelfth week of gestation, as well as a widening of existing grounds for terminations. This has proved a serious sticking point, on which those in favour of retaining the status quo have capitalised heavily.

Rival campaigns for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ have been mounted across the Republic, in cities and the countryside. On the pro-choice side, two major feminist groups, the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) and Repeal the 8th Campaign (which have recently coalesced into Together 4 Yes) have gained unprecedented levels of support from a wide range of organisations and individuals. While many activists are young, female and university educated, there is a strong showing from men and from groups and individuals from trade unions, community and elders’ associations – including one calling itself ‘Farmers for Choice’.

On this side of the Irish Sea, a vibrant ‘Yes’ campaign is a visible testament to a strong link between pro-choice groups on both islands since 1980.  In the half century since the passage of the British 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in the UK, pregnant people in the Republic have sought legal and safe terminations in Britain. Since an earlier referendum in 1992, people living in Ireland have been granted freedom to obtain or make available information on foreign abortion services and freedom to travel overseas for such a service. An average of 11 women every day travel from Ireland to Britain for an abortion. These include cases of fatal foetal abnormality, but exclude those with precarious immigration status for whom abortion pills obtained illegally on the internet or to a backstreet abortion are the only available option.

While crossing the Irish Sea to access an abortion is not illegal, it is nonetheless a hazardous journey. In an effort to alleviate muzzling, humiliation and hassles faced by people seeking abortion, the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) operated from 1980 to 2000. IWASG campaigned for a change in the law, but also acted as an informal voluntary support group; providing information on how to obtain a legal abortion, helping with travel arrangements where necessary, offering an escort service from stations and airports, overnight accommodation, financial aid, and, above all, providing a sympathetic ear. Since 2009, the London-based Abortion Support Network (ASN) has been providing a similar range of support services in greater volume, although without the campaigning dimension.

In 2012, following the death of a young Indian dentist, Savita Halappanavar, denied a lifesaving abortion in Galway University Hospital, an outpouring of sorrow and indignation was expressed across Ireland and internationally. Vigils proliferated and protest groups mushroomed. In Britain, the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (LIARC), a branch of the Ireland-based ARC, now counts a membership of over one thousand, mostly Irish or of Irish descent. LIARC’s campaigning includes media and communications, direct action and protest, fundraising and lobbying and, as with its Ireland-based sister organisation, its use of social media is prolific.

I am involved in a new type of campaigning organisation: Speaking of IMELDA (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion), a direct-action feminist performance collective founded in 2013 and based in London. IMELDA introduces an innovative dimension to the politics of protest by using devices such as drama, spectacle and carnival – for instance, knicker-bombing Irish leader Enda Kenny. This is a welcome departure for those of us interested in the visual arts and the possibilities of social media, as the performer’s own body can be employed as a site of meaning upon which the struggle for sexual and bodily autonomy is waged, while simultaneously approaching the subject with wit and laughter. Most recently, the group has undertaken a ‘Referendum Road Show: Speaking with IMELDA’, comprised of pop-up, mainly open-air, chat shows in Waterford, Cork, Ennis/Galway, and Sligo/Leitrim, as a contribution to the realisation of Irish people’s bodily autonomy on their own turf. This process has been captured in four short films, which you can view below.

IMELDAs singing and dancing with the vagina-faced woman in Galway city. Photo Credit: Speaking of IMELDA

As a veteran of Ireland’s abortion wars, north and south of the border, I have become familiar with defeat and, unsurprisingly, had mixed feelings when embarking on the road show. However, meeting campaigners, young and not-so-young, throughout much of the country and posing the question ‘should Ireland continue to make England the legal destination for abortion?’, I learnt that attitudes across a large swathe of the population have changed dramatically. In Yeats’ country, on the Sligo-Leitrim border, I listened to two ardent middle-aged campaigners talking of stepping into the unknown when running a rural market stall for Repeal the 8th and being bowled over by the positive reception. And I wondered if, when all’s said and done on 25 May, we may finally be able to declare, in the words of Yeats, ‘All changed, changed utterly’.

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