On May 26th, in a landslide victory, the Irish electorate voted to repeal Ireland’s near-total Constitutional ban on abortion: the 8th Amendment. Since 1983, the 8th Amendment has forced more than 170,000 women and girls to travel to other countries to access abortion services that should have been their right at home. Countless more self-administered abortion pills accessed through online providers. However, if the government delivers on its promise to pass legislation to guarantee access to safe abortion in Ireland, the burden of accessing abortion services could finally shift from women to our public health system, ending decades of unnecessary suffering.
It’s not every day that the women’s movement changes the constitution. Though to many change seemed to come about quite quickly, the resounding ‘yes’ vote came about through decades of grassroots campaigning. At the heart of it were the women and girls who came forward to tell their abortion stories. It was their bravery that turned the tide of the national conversation about abortion in Ireland. Indeed, polling conducted by Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), found that 77% of voters reported that the way they voted was most influenced by the experiences of people they knew or by personal abortion stories covered in the media.
It’s a testament to the power of every voice, and of what can happen when we share personal stories of injustice. It’s also an important reminder that you always have power, even when you feel you have none. I remember feeling that power when I participated in speak outs, organized mainly by the Abortion Rights Campaign. These were safe spaces where women could tell their abortion stories, some for the very first time. There’s no doubt that these spaces of solidarity and support were a driving factor in giving women the confidence and support to come forward to tell their own stories, giving a name and a face and a voice to the very real harm caused by the 8th Amendment.
Shame and stigma maintain silence. Once individuals decide for themselves that they will not be controlled by it, there’s no stopping that train. When you know someone who has had to travel for an abortion, it is not so easy to think or talk about the issue in the abstract. People standing up for themselves call us to face the complicity of their lives and the factors that go into the personal decision to have an abortion. Ireland is a small country, and with over 170,000 women and girls having travelled for an abortion or imported pills, and countless more having confronted the impact of the 8th Amendment on their right to make autonomous decisions about their bodies and health in pregnancy, it’s hard not to know someone who has been affected.
The proposition of the referendum itself was deeply flawed: a public vote on whether the state can realize women’s health and human rights. Health and human rights should never have been put to a vote, but our process for changing the Constitution required it. And on May 25th, two-thirds of voters in Ireland decided to restore the power to women and girls to decide what happens to their own bodies and lives. Exit polling found that “a woman’s right to choose” was the leading reason for people voting ‘yes’ in the referendum, followed closely by women’s health.
And so, in the last days of the campaign, an invisible burden that had been carried for a very long time, by individual women and by the women’s movement collectively, was taken up by people all over Ireland who cast their voices for choice and change. Many of us felt like we woke up in another country on the morning of Sunday, May 27th. There was a newfound feeling of support, now not just from within the movement, but from the wider population. Still, feelings remain mixed; there were celebrations when the outcome of the vote was announced, feelings of relief, and also of indignation--why did it take so long to end all this avoidable suffering?
Repeal of the 8th Amendment made history in Ireland, and will hopefully give strength to grassroots movements for women’s rights across the globe. We changed the Constitution, but the work is far from over. What sort of access we will see hinges on the draft abortion legislation that will be introduced when the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) resumes in the fall.
As one of the last countries in our region to legislate to guarantee access to safe abortion, our new law can and should be informed by what has and hasn’t worked in other countries. There is a plethora of information about what does and does not work when crafting effective abortion legislation. We should be replicating the gold standard, but early indications show we will likely fall short.
Heads of Bill have been published and updated, giving an idea of what the draft legislation will provide for. Access on request up to 12 weeks is included, but significant gaps remain. Women’s health is qualified by requirements that there be a ‘serious’ risk before a doctor can intervene. The legislation must be clear in it’s purpose: to realize women’s health and human rights. And the health system needs to be adequately strengthened and prepared to ensure access will be equitable. Time is of the essence. Though the public voted overwhelmingly to repeal the 8th Amendment, until legislation to guarantee access to abortion is in place, women and girls are continuing to travel every day.
In some ways, the real work begins now as we turn our focus to ensuring the legislation is concerned first and foremost with realizing women’s health and human rights. On May 25th, the people of Ireland voted to end the harms of the 8th Amendment, and to stem the flow of women traveling to other countries to access the abortion services they need. The public did not vote for barriers to access; the government must remember the mandate it has been given.
About the author: Grace Wilentz has had the privilege of working with, and learning from, a broad range of activists and groups seeking to make access to abortion free, safe and legal in Ireland. She is a former member, and current friend of RESURJ.