Ireland has changed quite dramatically since 1983, when two-thirds of the electorate approved a constitutional amendment that imposed a near total ban on abortion by recognizing “the right to life of the unborn,” which promised equal protection under the law to fetuses and pregnant women.
The contours of Ireland’s gradual transformation into a more liberal country in the decades since can be traced in the results of a series of subsequent referendums that defied the teachings of the once-dominant Catholic Church. Divorce was legalized, narrowly, in 1995; same-sex marriage, overwhelmingly, in 2015.
On Friday, Irish voters go to the polls once again, this time to cast ballots in a referendum on their government’s proposal to repeal the abortion ban enshrined in the Eighth Amendment to the constitution 35 years ago.
— Philip O'Connor (@philipoconnor) May 23, 2018
In some ways, the latest referendum looks a lot like the one on equal marriage. Now, as then, Irish expats temporarily flocked home to vote, enthusiastically documenting their journeys online. Many did so, conscious of the fact that Ireland’s abortion ban means that between 10 and 12 women a day are forced to travel in the opposite direction, mainly to England, to terminate their pregnancies, at great emotional and economic cost.
— Paula Kehoe (@paulamkehoe) May 24, 2018
Now, as then, the “yes” campaign has been backed by Leo Varadkar, a former health minister who became the country’s first openly gay leader last year.
— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) May 23, 2018
Now, as then, the divide between two very different ideas of Irish identity was evident in advertising and street art.
Women apparently neither protect lives nor deserve protection themselves ? pic.twitter.com/trvLNMBOcT
— ? amy o'connor ? (@amyohconnor) May 15, 2018
— Project Arts Centre (@projectarts) April 30, 2018
In other ways, the atmosphere around the vote is starkly different. In 2015, the “yes” campaign in favor of equal marriage was joyous. This year, the personal stories of suffering caused by the abortion ban have been harrowing.
As Sally Rooney explained in the London Review of Books, a Citizens’ Assembly set up by the government in 2016 had recommended repeal after hearing of the ban’s toll on women’s health. “Discussion focused on the most egregious consequences of the law,” Rooney noted: “the fact that pregnant women with cancer had limited rights to access treatment that might endanger the fetus; that women had to continue with pregnancies that had been deemed non-viable; that children (and adult women) who had been sexually abused were forced to bear their rapists’ offspring.”
In recent weeks, Irish cities and social networks were filled with images of one such woman, Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who died in the west of Ireland in 2012 because doctors refused to perform an abortion to save her life during a three-day miscarriage.
— Gráinne Ní Aodha (@GNiAodha) May 25, 2018
— Amnesty Ireland (@AmnestyIreland) May 24, 2018
Abortion-rights activists channeled their rage over that young woman’s death into a popular movement for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which prompted many more women to recount their own near-death experiences in the run-up to Friday’s vote.
— Naomi O'Leary (@NaomiOhReally) May 25, 2018
While the final Irish Times opinion poll, conducted last week, showed that most voters who had already made up their minds intended to vote for the proposed repeal of the ban — with 44 percent committed to supporting the measure, and 32 percent against it — nearly one in five voters remained undecided. At the same point in the same-sex marriage campaign, which was eventually won 62-38, the “yes” vote had a much larger lead, with 58 percent support in the final poll.
— Paul O'Donoghue (@paulodonoghue93) May 21, 2018
As the campaign came to a close, Irish feminists were cautiously optimistic, but far from certain, that their side would win when the votes are counted on Saturday. “Whatever happens,” Irish Times columnist Una Mullally told the podcaster Jarlath Regan, “is going to be seismic for Ireland.”
Mullally, who contributed to the campaign by editing the best-selling anthology “Repeal the 8th,” added: “Either we will see abortion legalized and the Eighth Amendment removed from the constitution — an amendment that has hurt so many people and been responsible for so much pain — and the feeling of that going is going to be monumental. … And if it doesn’t, I think that there is going to be a massive divide in this country. I don’t think people are ready for the absolute outpouring of anger and upset that will cause.”
This referendum is especially hard to call because it's impossible to know where the faultlines lie in society. Traditional categories don't apply.
Case in point: the local woman who voted Yes before heading to early mass to pray for #repealthe8th
— Naomi O'Leary (@NaomiOhReally) May 25, 2018
To get a better sense of what this bitterly contested referendum campaign might tell us about how much Ireland has changed, I spoke with the Irish writer and feminist Susan McKay. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, which was conducted on the sidelines of the Thinking Gender Justice conference at University College Dublin this week.
Robert Mackey: How has this referendum campaign been different from the one in 2015, when marriage equality won so easily, and the one on abortion in 1983?
Susan McKay: Obviously marriage is a joyful thing, it was possible to talk about same-sex marriage in terms of lovely people who loved each other and wanted to demonstrate their love for each other by getting married. And lots of people had gay people in their families who they knew deserved this chance to be happy and to signal the fact that they were happy and in love and so on.
It isn’t easy to do that with the issue of abortion because abortion is a very sad issue. Nobody wants an abortion. Nobody is going to be happy about the prospect of having to have an abortion. People may feel relieved that they are able to access an abortion, but it’s not a thing that anybody feels good about.
It’s done in circumstances where a crisis has occurred in a woman’s life; she may have been raped, she may have experienced a pregnancy where there’s a fatal fetal abnormality, she may have a pregnancy in a marriage where there’s violence, she may just have a pregnancy where she already has children and can’t cope with another, or she may have a pregnancy at a time where she just really feels that she can’t handle it.
So it’s all about women making decisions that are carefully taken, but which are taken probably with a heavy heart, I would say, in most cases. I’ve never known anybody who casually had an abortion or contemplated an abortion — it’s not that kind of thing.
So it is a different tone of debate, and there’s been an awful lot of nastiness that has come out of the woodwork in the most recent part of this debate.
I campaigned in 1983; I was working in the rape crisis center in Belfast. At that time, the Catholic Church was very powerful in Ireland. At one stage, a bishop came out and said that the most dangerous place for a baby to be was in its mother’s womb.
The bishops were extremely powerful at that stage. They were taken very seriously. Everything that they said made the headlines. Things have changed since then.
And also back then, the government was proposing the amendment. It was Garret FitzGerald of the Fine Gael party who actually proposed the amendment, and it was backed by most of the other political parties, including several who are currently campaigning to have the amendment removed.
The massed ranks of church and state were against feminism in 1983. Even the rape crisis centers were regarded as being, you know, fronts for abortion, and there were people — campaigners against the right to choose — who were very proud of the fact that they had managed to get funding stopped for rape crisis centers. That kind of thing. There was a lot of very vicious cruelty to the impetus to put the amendment in the constitution.
The primary motivation seems to have been women were not trusted to maintain the kind of Catholic Ireland that [Éamon] de Valera wanted when he set up the state. So that was the thinking behind it. It was very vicious, very nasty. People would have come out and physically attacked people who were campaigning in the streets and so on. When we were campaigning in Donegal, people would have snatched your leaflets from you and thrown them on the ground, and that kind of thing. People were called murderers and all of that.
I think, to fast-forward to the present day, there was a hope at the beginning of the campaign that it was going to be much more civilized than that. I remember the first meeting that I went to and spoke at, at the beginning of this campaign, I found that I was quite scared going into the room, I was nervous, I thought, this is going to be awful, there are going to be people who are going to jump up and call me a murderer.
I found that first meeting, which was several months ago now, very civil and very calm and very well-mannered, and there were people there who were anti-abortion but were willing to discuss the issues. But as the campaign has gone on, I think that the No side — the side that wants to keep the constitution as it is, with this attempt at totally banning abortion — they have got very nasty.
People have been called murderers. People have been told things which are just untrue about what will happen if this is brought in. There are horrible posters up all over the country which show full-term babies and are titled, “A License to Kill.” And there are pictures of fetuses which are way beyond the age, the date, which most people would ever contemplate having an abortion at. Late-term abortions are quite rare, and are only carried out in very extreme circumstances, but you would think to look at the No side campaigns that this was going to be a genocide.
There are some of the more extreme people who have talked in terms of a Holocaust and a genocide and have talked about the Irish people are going to be wiped out and Muslims are going to take over the country — just mad stuff. And they don’t seem to care whether it’s true or not. The facts of it are not being questioned, they’re just throwing it out there so that people who have misgivings about abortion will feel, “Oh well, it’s too risky, let’s just vote to keep things as they are.” It’s very dishonest and it’s not serving the people of Ireland well at all.
If this referendum is passed, what we will get is legislation which will provide for, probably, for abortion by use of pills, which is really just an extension of the morning after pill, for probably a maximum of up to 12 weeks. If it’s more than 12 weeks, there will have to be very particular circumstances.
So in terms of an abortion regime, it will be quite a stringent one, in all probability, because Irish people are quite conservative about abortion, but it will be much more humane and compassionate than this situation we have now, where 12 women a day are going to England to have abortions in secrecy and often feeling banished and feeling that they are seen as being a disgrace and a shame to their country.
There are some dreadful stories of people who were carrying babies that they really wanted and they discovered that they were suffering from a fatal fetal abnormality and they have wanted to bring the fetus back to Ireland to bury it or have it cremated and they’ve had to sort of smuggle — they’ve smuggled themselves out and they’ve had to smuggle the dead fetus back in again.
It’s just horrendous, it’s really inhumane, and it shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s founded in a deep distrust of women, you know, that women will make decisions that are against the interests of babies. And that’s just so not true.
Women bear children in this country, women look after children in this country, most child minders are women, most parents who look after babies are women, most people who stay at home for periods of time who are workers to look after small children are women. Women look after the sick, women look after the disabled, women look after the elderly. You know, the caring professions are predominantly populated by women. So the notion that women are out to kill babies is just so offensive, it’s unbelievable.
RM: Everyone seems convinced that this referendum will be much closer than the one in 2015, which introduces the idea that there are people who were willing to vote for marriage equality who will vote against abortion.
SM: Well, who can know? Because there are still people in Ireland who prefer not to say what way they’re going to vote because it is such an emotive issue and they don’t want to be dragged into a public debate about what they feel is a very private issue, and I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view. I think that it is a very private issue for people and I think a lot of people privately support the right to choose but don’t necessarily want to go out and shout about it. So I think there’s a hidden proportion of people out there who will just quietly exercise their right to vote for this to be repealed.
I think it’s very difficult to predict referendums in Ireland, and I personally very often get it very wrong, but I feel that it will be repealed because my sense of what’s being said by people of all ages and all backgrounds in Ireland is that there’s a lot of compassion and humanity out there that wasn’t being expressed back in 1983 when people still maybe believed a lot more in the authority of the Catholic Church. The church has diminished its own authority in the intervening years because it has been proved to have covered up a lot of extreme cruelty towards women and children, through mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries, industrial schools — you know, generations of Irish people have been damaged and traumatized by what passed for care in Catholic Ireland. So I think a lot of people have moved away from the Catholic Church’s authority in that respect, but a lot of people still want to get their children into Catholic schools and feel that therefore, they have to be seen to support the church.
RM: One interesting aspect of this referendum, if it passes, is that Ireland could suddenly be far more socially liberal than Northern Ireland, where both equal marriage and abortion are against the law, even though it is part of the United Kingdom, and politics among non-Catholics is shaped by a form of Evangelical Protestantism.
SM: Northern Ireland is still governed by the 19th-century British abortion law. When the 1967 legislation was brought in in Britain, it wasn’t extended to Northern Ireland. So there’s still a very punitive abortion regime in Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately, several of the main political parties in the North, including predominantly the DUP but also the SDLP, are anti-abortion, so that means that they have held out against bringing abortion legislation into Northern Ireland and in fact a number of people were prosecuted for obtaining abortion pills in Northern Ireland.
It is interesting to note that a lot of Northern Irish women and men are campaigning in the Republic on this referendum, even though they don’t have a vote in it.
RM: This could be interesting too in light of recent discussion about a possible surge in support for Northern Ireland voting to leave the U.K. if Brexit forces a hard border to be reimposed across the island of Ireland.
SM: It will play into that sense that perhaps Ireland would be a more civilized country if it was united, I think. Northern Irish women currently also have to go to Britain. They have to make a sea crossing to England or Scotland to have an abortion as well.
Women will be able to cross the border to access abortion through doctors in the Republic when this is passed because we’re European citizens on both sides of the border. What happens after Brexit is another matter, but for the moment, it is going to be possible.
Updated: Friday, May 25, 6:00 a.m. This post was updated with a revised headline and more information on voting in Ireland and the case of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who died in the west of Ireland in 2012 because doctors refused to perform an abortion that would have saved her life.