Lucy Russell discusses why the abortion referendum is a radical move for Ireland.
The eighth amendment to the Irish constitution is what makes Ireland the only country in Europe where abortion is banned in all circumstances. It is also this amendment that is responsible for thousands of Irish women making the journey to England every year, for the sole reason of obtaining safe access to abortion. Last week, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar announced that the referendum to overturn the eighth amendment would take place by the end of May. This is a crucial moment in Irish history, but this announcement is only the beginning of what promises to be a long and difficult campaign for both sides.
The Pro-Choice campaign is currently believed to have a majority, as the referendum comes on the recommendation of the Citizen’s Assembly – a government committee set up to investigate the eighth amendment – which voted overwhelmingly in favour of repeal. However, while the Pro-Choice campaign does have the support of key political figures and a lead in the polls, these promise to be a long four months, with the Pro-Life campaign claiming to be ‘confident’ in their own success.
The Pro-Life campaign has already hired digital campaigns company ‘UCampaign’, which has created campaigns for other high-profile and controversial clients such as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, the US National Rifle Association, as well as the unsuccessful campaign against same-sex marriage in Australia. This group has a record of particularly ugly campaigns and has been accused of malpractices, such as sharing the details of undecided voters without their consent. One week into the campaign they have already been asked by Down Syndrome Ireland to ‘stop exploiting children and adults with Down Syndrome to promote their campaign views’, after it was announced that the first campaign billboard would feature a young boy with Down Syndrome and the words ‘In Britain, 90% of babies with Down Syndrome are aborted’. Down Syndrome Ireland, which represents 35,000 members, reminded both sides that people with disabilities listen to the news and read media articles, and have asked for the tone of both campaigns to reflect this. Even though it is only a few days into the campaigns, this seems to have set the tone for what promises to be four months of very emotive and relentless campaigning.
There is no doubt this referendum will be hugely divisive, as Ireland slowly moves towards the separation of the state and the firm Roman Catholic beliefs that have formed its constitution and national values for so many years. This referendum is like many we’ve seen over the last few years, promising to divide a nation along traditional battle lines like generation, class, geography and religion. Many of the more rural counties in Ireland that voted against same-sex marriage still harbour resentment for being depicted as backward and out of touch with Dublin’s ‘liberal elite’. This referendum promises to be the closest and tensest referendum in Ireland’s recent history and to divide Irish society even further.
Despite the long campaign period ahead, there are plenty of positives to take from the announcement of the referendum itself – not least the pivotal U-turn in policy from Varadkar. Ireland’s Taoiseach has always been firmly anti-abortion, so his support of the repealing of the eighth amendment, and replacing it with access to abortion up until 12 weeks is incredibly radical. This could be read as clever political strategy, but even so, Varadkar delivered a convincing and personal call for repeal, asking the Irish public to ‘trust women’. He talked about his own personal journey from his anti-abortion position, pointing out that the far harder journey is made by the thousands of women who travel to England to end their pregnancies and the estimated 2,000 women who put their lives at risk every year by taking illegal abortion pills. He claims that he was influenced by the stories of women, and it was only through listening and trusting them that he was able to realise this referendum was the right course of action.
While it will be hard for some to accept that men who spoke so fervently in favour of state control over women’s bodies have ‘changed their mind’ the changes that could occur because of this are seismic. No matter how cynical you may be, it is still heartening to be reminded of the difference that can be made by listening to the voices of women and giving value to their input and knowledge. It is crucial that we tell these women that their stories and their experiences matter and that they have the ability to change minds and policies. Varadkar and his government have placed women and women’s voices at the forefront of this campaign and this is something we should champion as it has the potential to make huge strides for women’s rights in Ireland.
Illustration by Maegan Farrow.