Ireland has once again made history, voting resoundingly to repeal its 35-year-long constitutional ban on abortion. The Yes vote at last Friday’s referendum of 66.4 per cent was both decisive and overwhelming.
Over two million people out of the country’s small population of less than five million turned out to vote, exceeding even the turnout at Ireland’s 2015 marriage equality referendum. Some urban electorates in Dublin returned “Yes” votes of upwards of 75 per cent. But far from predictions of a conservative “silent majority” in rural Ireland, the pro-choice landslide was consistent across all ages and geographic areas. Exit polls confirmed that support for “woman’s right to choose” was the most popular reason for voting Yes.
The Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which equates the life of a woman with that of a foetus, saw women face a 14-year jail sentence for procuring an abortion. Over 3000 women a year have been forced to travel to Britain to access safe terminations. The repeal of the Eighth Amendment will allow the Irish parliament, the Dáil, to legislate on abortion law. The Fine Gael government says it will introduce a bill before October to allow the right to an abortion without restrictions until 12 weeks of pregnancy. The radical left is pushing for legislation to be passed immediately.
This latest referendum victory marks, to an even greater extent than the marriage equality vote, a decisive blow both against the historic influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the conservative backlash against women’s rights of the 1980s from which the Eighth Amendment emerged.
While Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadker has, in a moment of wishful thinking, attempted to rewrite the history of the referendum as a “quiet revolution”, this result has been driven by 35 years of grassroots activism. Far from “quiet”, the Irish pro-choice movement has challenged the Church and state at every step of the way, until recently without any support from the establishment parties.
The death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar, a Galway woman who contracted septicaemia after being denied an abortion for a fatal foetal abnormality, produced a major turning point in public opinion. As a landslide began to look increasingly certain on polling day, hundreds of Yes voters converged on a mural of Savita in Dublin to leave flowers and messages of condolence. One note read: “Savita, my vote is for you. We owe you so much.”
In the lead up to the referendum, the “Together for Yes” campaign mobilised an army of volunteer canvassers to defeat the combined weight of the Catholic Church and a well-funded “No” campaign.
In addition, the referendum galvanized a campaign of international solidarity in over 27 cities across the world. As in 2015, young Irish emigrants denied a postal vote returned “home to vote”, while others, unable to fly home, took to social media and appealed for relatives to #BeMyYes.
In Australia, members of the Irish community formed an Irish Abortion Rights Campaign that raised over $14,000 for the Yes campaign across 20 separate fundraising events. One of the most well-attended of these fundraisers was a pub quiz, hosted by the human rights lawyer Lizzie O’Shea, at the Drunken Poet in Melbourne. Messages of solidarity were also received from Greens MPs, Victorian Trades Hall, Labor for Choice, and staff and students at Curtin and Melbourne Universities.
Ireland, a country once stereotyped as insular and socially conservative, will now have more progressive abortion laws than either New South Wales or Queensland, where abortion remains a criminal offense. In these states, doctors can only lawfully perform them if they judge a woman’s physical or mental health to be at risk.
As Together for Yes convenor Gráinne Griffin put it, Ireland’s victory, “has lit a beacon of hope for countries all over the world.” Pro-choice activists need to ensure it spreads to the North of Ireland. British Prime Minister Theresa May has refused to reform its extreme anti-abortion laws in response to the referendum, with her coalition partners in the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party an obstacle to reform. And it should encourage a renewed effort at decriminalisation here too.
By Jimmy Yan