Behind Ireland’s historic vote for abortion rights

Becca Bor, a pro-choice campaigner, member of People Before Profit (PBP) in Derry, Northern Ireland, and editorial board member of rebelnews.ie, explains the victory for the movement to repeal Ireland’s eighth amendment, which criminalised abortion.

The massive Yes vote on 25 May for a referendum repealing an Irish constitutional amendment that made abortion illegal was a resounding victory for women in Ireland and around the world.

When voting ended on Friday, exit polls showed that repeal would win by a landslide, and the celebrating commenced. When all the ballots were counted, Yes to repeal had 66.4 percent of the vote, and No had 33.6 percent.

Every county except northern Donegal voted to repeal the eighth amendment. In some constituencies, nearly 80 percent voted Yes.

Given the depths of conservatism and the strength of the Catholic Church, this overwhelming vote was surprising to many. But it confirmed the reality of a radically changed Ireland – an Ireland in which the vast majority of politicians and institutions are out of step with the population.

This was already evident with the eruption of the movement against water charges in 2014, the victorious equal marriage referendum in 2015 and now the movement to repeal the eighth.

In each of these upheavals, politicians ran to catch up with changing political sentiments. But at no point did they have to run so fast than on the question of choice.

Taoiseach [prime minister] Leo Varadkar, of the right wing Fine Gael party, stood smiling as the vote came in, heralding this “historic day for Ireland” in which the people “voted for the next generation”. He went on to declare: “What we see is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades”.

The irony of this statement coming from the likes of Varadkar wasn’t lost on any woman who has been ignored, shamed and belittled.

This was, in fact, not a “quiet revolution”, but rather the culmination of protest after protest.

Thousands of people filled the streets in 1992 when news broke about the X case – a 14-year-old child who was raped and became pregnant, and was refused travel to England for a termination, even though she was suicidal.

Massive pressure from below led to a successful referendum on amending the constitution, which permitted abortion when a woman’s life was at risk, allowed the right to travel abroad for an abortion and acknowledged the right to access information about abortion.

Similarly, the streets of Ireland again filled with loud, furious and mourning protesters in 2012, when Savita Halappanavar died from septicaemia. She had asked for an abortion, but was denied one because of the detection of a foetal heartbeat.

There were more protests. More demands for change. More outrage.

In that year, the Abortion Rights Campaign was founded, demanding free, safe and legal abortion. The last few years have seen tens of thousands more on the streets, including a march of more than 50,000 people last year.

Varadkar ignored this revolution, these thousands of women and their allies demanding to be heard, respected and treated equally. In fact, Varadkar decided to campaign to repeal the eighth amendment only this January, and his party members were divided on repeal.

To many people’s surprise, in the run-up to the referendum, opposition leader Micheál Martin announced that he would vote Yes, breaking the official position of his Fianna Fáil party. Each of the these two establishment and anti-choice parties tried desperately to keep one foot in each camp until it seemed perfectly safe to declare a newfound respect for women.

The grassroots movement from below won this referendum, with the radical left in government amplifying its voice.

Independent teachta dála (TD – member of the Irish parliament) Clare Daly, People Before Profit TD Brid Smith and Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger, along with the rest of the PBP and Solidarity TDs and councillors, used their platforms in the dail and council to agitate for a woman’s right to choose.

The referendum was won by the thousands of campaigners over the years, and the women who told their own stories. It was women themselves who changed Irish society.

Interestingly, an RTÉ exit poll found that 76 percent of the people surveyed “didn’t change their mind within the past five years”, with 8 percent saying Savita’s death changed their minds and 12 percent saying the campaign did. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed cited the experience of someone they knew as the reason for their Yes vote.

In other words, the shame, stigma and shadow of the eighth amendment’s ban on women’s right to choose has been lifted for some time – with this referendum ripping off the veil once and for all.

Although the mainstream discussion around the eighth amendment highlighted the “hard cases”, such as abortions in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality, the exit polls showed that, at the end of the day, Irish society wanted to trust women. Some 62 percent of those surveyed cited “women’s right to choose” as the factor most important to them for making their decision.

Once again, these polls prove how important it was to hear women’s stories – for women to begin to come out of the shadows and talk about abortion in families, among friends and through social media.

Every age group except those above 65 voted Yes – with a remarkable 87.6 percent of 18 to 24 year olds and 84.6 percent of 25 to 34 year olds voting for repeal.

The vote was buoyed by the Home to Vote movement, in which thousands of mainly young Irish citizens returned home from all over the world to vote. Go Fund Me travel pages were quickly funded; Facebook pages were covered with posts of people with smiling faces, holding their passports, and wearing Repeal sweatshirts and Yes pins; and crowds came to the airport to welcome those returning to vote.

Another incredible result of the referendum was that 63.3 percent of rural Ireland voted Yes. The only county to vote No was northern Donegal, but even there, the 52-48 margin was close considering that 85 percent of Donegal voters voted for the eighth amendment to be added to the constitution in 1983.

Rural Ireland isn’t what it used to be. And in fact, the role of women isn’t what it once was. Much of rural Ireland has been urbanised and a majority of women are now in the workforce.

The Irish constitution has a section that formally recognises the role of women in the home. Until 1970, there was a ban on married women working in the public sector. In 1971, only 38,000 married women worked outside the home. But by 1996, 230,000 married women worked outside the home – a 6-fold increase in only 25 years.

Today, the workforce is more than half female in Ireland. This material reality changed women’s relationship to public life, transformed their expectations and aspirations for themselves and changed the way men viewed them as well.

The sense of dignity won by the thousands of women and others who built this movement is palpable. There is a new feeling in the air – one of change, defiance, strength and solidarity.

Immediately after the victory, eyes turned North. Although part of the United Kingdom, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, making it the last sliver in these islands to deny women their basic reproductive rights.

Already, there have been protests in the North, and there is immense pressure on prime minister Theresa May to legislate for abortion reform, since the Northern Irish Assembly has been dissolved for 17 months. Pressure is mounting on local politicians in the North to come out for choice and a massive rally is planned for 10 June.

North and South, the struggle is hardly over. The right wing will continue to organise to deny women access to abortion. Priests have lashed out at Yes voters, calling on them to confess of their sinful vote. Some have threatened not to marry Yes voters.

However, the momentum and the power of this grassroots movement can win much more. With the eighth amendment repealed, legislation needs to be voted on.

The movement needs to ensure that abortion care is free and accessible, agitate for a separation of church and state, demand that contraception and family planning is evidence-based, free and accessible to all – and that those in the North desperate for equality are not once again punished by the reaction of partition.

We are the movement for women’s equality – and in motion, we are unstoppable.

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First published at www.SocialistWorker.org.