Today the people of Ireland made history. After a referendum, called for 3 years ago, the 8th Amendment, Ireland’s law prohibiting abortion, was repealed. The final result was announced at 6.19pm after voting concluded on Friday night. The Yes campaign won safely with a majority of 706,349 votes securing 66.4% of the votes and, amazingly, only one constituency voted No. It may seem strange to some that a decision, which is sometimes incredibly difficult, is being celebrated, but in a way allowing abortion is a small piece of the victory here, what is really being celebrated is the freedom and trust finally being granted to women in Ireland.
The 8th Amendment, introduced in 1983, equates the right to life of a foetus to the right to life of the mother and grants the foetus legal protection. Effectively, the 8th Amendment made it illegal for a pregnant person to have an abortion, even in the circumstances of rape or incest. The Catholic Church heavily influences Irish national identities and family is a central tenet of Catholicism, leaving no place in Ireland for women who do not want to or at any point cannot safely bring a child into the world.
The 8th Amendment forced women, 11 a day, to travel to the UK for abortions, to perform their own surgery, or to buy abortion pills over the Internet (a ‘crime’ which carries a 14 year prison sentence, longer than the sentence for rape). Irish women’s position as second-class citizens was epitomized by the cruelty of being forced to travel abroad. But the emotional turbulence of travel is not the only issue women face. The 8th Amendment exacerbates social divides because not every pregnant person has the ability to travel due to the impact of class, ethnicity and economic position. Many working class people cannot afford time off work and the costs of flying and staying in a hotel. Many migrants are afraid that if they leave to get an abortion their status may prevent them from returning to Ireland.
Campaigners worked to prevent the 8th Amendment ever becoming part of the Constitution and continued to campaign at subsequent referendums. This was partially because of the X case, the story of a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped and was prevented from travelling for an abortion. The X case brought about landmark additions to the 8th Amendment in 1992 with the Irish Supreme Court allowing abortion if there is a risk to the mother’s life including through the risk of suicide.
After this the campaign lay dormant until 2012, when the death of Savita Halappanavar sent shockwaves across Ireland and internationally. Savita, a 31-year-old dentist, entered a hospital in Galway as she was miscarrying; a week later she had died of sepsis due to the doctors refusal to grant her an abortion for the child she had already lost. An inquest called her death the result of a ‘medical misadventure’, but truthfully it was the total disregard of women and their choices the 8th Amendment causes. The outrage at Savita’s death revived the pro-choice campaign in Ireland, the Abortion Rights Campaign was created and #Repealthe8th first appeared on Twitter. Savita became an emblem for change and reproductive freedom and her family are grateful for this, her father asked the people of Ireland to remember Savita on the day of the Referendum.
The pro-choice campaign was led by the umbrella group, Together for Yes, which brought together over 70 pro-choice groups representing various areas of Irish society. The support for Together for Yes was astonishing, the campaign aimed to raise €50,000 in a week but met this goal in just two hours. The campaign worked tirelessly canvassing across the country, producing promotional material and encouraging Irish ex-pats who were still eligible to vote to come home. Just a quick scroll through #Repealthe8th reveals how difficult it has been for pro-choice campaigners and individuals at times, stories of campaigners being verbally abused were not uncommon. Other pro-choice individuals were spat at, and one man was physically attacked for wearing a Repeal jumper.
The pro-life campaign, or the No side, began with more funding and moved faster once the referendum was confirmed. Love Both and Save the 8th, two pro-life groups, relied heavily on comparing the future following the repeal of the 8th to the situation in England, Scotland and Wales. Statements such as: on demand abortion means one in five babies are aborted in England and that 90% of pregnant people in the UK whose child is diagnosed with Down Syndrome choose to have an abortion, were frequently thrown around. Luckily, despite opinion polls suggesting the result would be incredibly close, the No side’s scaremongering tactics and blatant disregard for the rights of the pregnant person failed spectacularly.
But what does this all mean and why is it something to be celebrated?
Officially, the referendum result means that the clause equating the right to life of the foetus to that of the mother will be changed to instead state, “provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.” The proposed regulations under which abortion would be allowed include up to 12 weeks without specific indication and in the case of Fatal Foetal Abnormality. The Prime Minister Leo Varadkar always supported repealing the 8th and has said he will enact this law by the end of the year.
Adding this change to other progress in Ireland, the allowing of gay marriage in 2015 and the 1995 Divorce Bill that lifted the Constitutional prohibition of divorce, the archaic and misogynistic nature of Ireland is finally being eroded.
Most importantly, it means an incredible amount for the women and pregnant people of Ireland. It means they are trusted now, they are entitled to basic healthcare in their own country and have been granted bodily autonomy after years of having choices made for them.
To those who were involved in the referendum, whatever you did, no matter how small, whether it was hours of canvassing, going home to vote or simply sending a tweet with #Repealthe8th or discussing the issue with a loved one, you played a part in this historic moment. Thank you to the organisers, campaigners, donors and all the Irish people who voted yes. You have made Ireland a safer place for pregnant people, you have made women feel valued and respected, you have allowed them to be treated with dignity in the face of a challenging decision, you have made change. Now on to the next fight, decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland. There is no stopping until women everywhere are free to make their own choices without being a criminal for it.
Photo Credit: The Indian Wire.