Repeal: a victory for women everywhere

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Outside Dublin Castle when the result was announced. Pic: Paula Geraghty

The impact of the historic vote for abortion rights in Ireland last month was felt worldwide and is a real blow to the religious right. Socialist Review spoke to Sinéad Kennedy, Co-founder of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment about the campaign that inspired and involved so many.

It was a stunning vote, why was it so successful?

Well, it’s difficult to say. At the moment we are still trying to assess it. Certainly it was a larger Yes vote than we had ever imagined. The information that’s beginning to come out suggests people had been making up their minds not just over the last weeks but over the last few years.

There has been a gradual transformation in Ireland around this issue, but I would say one of the things people talk about is the fact that many women came out and told their stories. That was very much at the centre of our campaign: to allow people’s voices to be present and to hear people talk about their experiences of abortion.

With the history of Ireland particularly around this issue you couldn’t talk about abortion; even the word “abortion” was taboo. If you look back at 1983 when the amendment was put into the constitution the word abortion never actually appeared in the debate. On both sides people referred to it as the “substantive issue”. As if people went to England because of a “substantive issue”! There has been so much shame and stigma and silence around the issue for so long.

The death of Savita Halappanavar was a key moment. When she died her husband very generously allowed her story to be told and to be put out into the public domain. It was no longer an abstract issue. People saw the reality of Ireland’s abortion ban. The trauma and the hardship and everything it has created had this kind of tsunami effect that so many people came out and bravely told their stories.

Now it can seem very easy but it wasn’t and even women who did tell their stories — and I’m thinking of two particular journalists, Roisin Ingle and Tara Flynn — they got a huge amount of backlash particularly on social media, nasty personal attacks. So people who did it, who told those stories, are very very courageous and I think we all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

In places like Dublin there was a huge urban vote but also in rural areas too. Was that less expected given the open opposition of the Catholic church?

Everyone was expecting a big urban/ rural divide and that was not what the divide was. Actually in some ways it was a divide between young and old but even there what was interesting is that it was young people who really kind of took the lead on this and they changed a lot of minds even of older people.

It was 87% of people under 25 who voted yes, it went down below 50% in some parts with older voters, but nevertheless people talked about conversations they had with their grandparents and their parents and a lot of older people did come out and support this campaign.

One of the things they talked about was listening to young people talk about their experiences. Also the energy and dynamism — this was a campaign that was led on the ground by women and by young people which is really a kind of a first in Irish politics.

One of the reasons the mainstream media and the political establishment had so much difficulty understanding the nature of the campaign and why they were so shocked by it is it didn’t fit into the typical “Political” campaign with a capital P.

All the time we were being told by political commentators, usually male political commentators, that there was no clear leadership in this campaign, there wasn’t a charismatic man at the centre of the campaign.

There was a leadership largely of women and some men at the centre of the campaign apparatus, but where the real work was done on the ground was women getting out and leading canvassing teams, women who had never been involved in politics in their entire life. Women leading canvassing teams of over 100 in their areas —that’s where the energy came from. That’s what won it.

It was an extraordinary thing to be part of and to see that there was something really happening here. It built on the marriage equality referendum from 2015 but it also took it a step further than that.

It’s been noticeable that the leadership of other political parties have been trying to claim the victory as theirs even though they were very late to support the calls for repeal. What do you think about that?

The political establishment eventually came on board. If you think of this as a campaign, if you take the long view, it’s been 35 years in the making. All the people who opposed the amendment and ran the anti-amendment campaign in 1983, those veterans were very much a part of our campaign.

The new generation that were mobilised after the death of Savita Halappanavar and the process of forcing the political establishment to give the referendum. It was the movement that won the referendum.

Once the political establishment were forced to concede the demand of a referendum I think the reason they supported repeal was that they felt they couldn’t refuse it. Faced with the idea we were going to win, they were probably going to try to own that victory. But I don’t think they are going to be able to do that. Some political parties played a role in the campaign — some of the left political parties — but it was very much a campaign on the ground.

What happens now with the legislation?

I think it’s very clear. The government in advance of the referendum produced the heads of a bill which gave the broad outlines of how they would legislate. This was provision on request of up to 12 weeks, for provision after 12 weeks in cases of serious risk to health and fatal foetal abnormalities. There wasn’t any ambiguity about that.

The No side tried to make an issue of it. They opposed it during the course of the campaign but when they realised they weren’t getting any traction they began to say maybe we should legislate for the “hard cases” such as fatal foetal abnormality and rape. They said that the legislation being proposed was too extreme, it was going too far, it was abortion on demand. But I think there’s a very clear mandate to repeal the eighth amendment and to legislate.

Even they realise this because now they are announcing that they are going to move directly towards producing legislation. So I think the establishment realise they are under pressure and they have to deliver this and that they are not going to be able to water it down. But certainly there was a concern among some of us that if it was very close, if we had won by 1 or 2 percent, that there might be an attempt to row back on the legislation particularly around the 12 weeks.

But we were very clear that we supported the 12 weeks and I think there was a resounding Yes not just to get rid of the amendment but to legislate for abortion. I can’t see the government risking going against that. I mean if they do we’ll have something to do about that. I think they would be terrified not to.

The involvement of activists from the North has been a feature. What will the victory mean for the campaign there?

I think it is a very important victory for North and South. In the pro-choice movement we have always understood this as one struggle. That a victory for women in the North was a victory for women in the South and therefore a victory for women in the South is a victory for women in the North.

We’ve had tremendous support and solidarity from our sisters in the North. They’d come down weekend after weekend, and have come to Dublin and have come to some of the border counties. I know for example in Derry they’ve been closely involved in the campaign in Donegal. This is as much their victory as it is ours.

The fact that the government envisaged abortion to be a GP-led service will hopefully mean it will be easier for women in the North. They could now travel over the border and access abortions; it will make that provision easier. But far more importantly than that it has put the issue of abortion on the political agenda in the North.

Sinn Fein, who had always been equivocal about us, had supported the issue in the South, but were not necessarily on board in the North. They have now said that they are committed and have indicated that they will support abortion in the North which I think is important.

Last night there was a wonderful rally in Belfast and many of us now in the South will turn our attention to making sure that the 1967 act is extended to Northern Ireland so that all women on this island can access abortion.

There’s been huge numbers of activists canvassing in all parts of the country. Why do you think that is?

This issue matters to so many people. It was really quite telling the kind of response you saw particularly on the day of the result. It was for all of us not just because we had been involved in the campaign. It was an incredibly emotional day.

You know a lot of newspaper columnists were talking about the “tone”, that we shouldn’t have been celebrating, that it wasn’t appropriate and blah blah blah, but that was not understanding what this was about. Nobody was celebrating having an abortion; nobody wants to have an abortion. What we were celebrating was that this was a sea change in Irish society.

This was why it was such an enormous campaign. It involved so many people. It represented what was so corrupt in the Irish state in its whole history, one that has involved control, regulation and incarceration, particularly of women. Policing their sexuality. Controlling their fertility.

The eighth amendment was the embodiment of that for many people, particularly for women, but this was also a campaign that involved so many men as well. It represented that for people. It represented a change, a break with the Ireland of the Magdalen Laundries, of the mother and baby homes, of forcing people to leave this country with the stigma and shame. People recognised what a rotten society we had for so many years. Add in the decline of the church there as well.

So that’s why people wanted — building on the change that began with marriage equality — people wanted to fight for something different. They wanted to be part of a different sort of society. I think that’s where the real impetus for the campaign came from and why it involved so many people across so many generations

I would add that this was not just about Ireland. This was part of a global struggle as well. I think the right which has been cracking down internationally on abortion rights was very keenly looking at what was happening in Ireland.

The No side was very well supported by some of the far-right in Europe and particularly the United States. So we had a lots of messages of support and international solidarity from women across Europe and South and North America because they recognised if we won here it would be much more difficult for the right to mobilise against abortion rights in other parts of the world. So our struggle was also an international struggle as well.


Now lets spread the fight across borders by Judith Orr

The stunning referendum result in Ireland, driven by a mass grassroots campaign, has created a political crisis at the heart of Theresa May’s Tory government. It puts in sharp contrast the legal situation for women seeking abortion services north of the Irish border — a part of the UK that has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.

Only 13 legal abortions took place there in 2016/17 and during 2016 at least 724 women travelled to England to have an abortion. This figure is lower than previous years as more women risk prosecution by buying abortion pills online. The law says that “Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable …to be kept in penal servitude for life.”

One woman, 19 when she bought abortion pills online as she couldn’t raise enough money to travel, was convicted and given a three month suspended sentence in 2016. The “poison” she was convicted of using was medication used all over the world and the same pills she would have been prescribed had she got to Britain. A similar prosecution has even resulted from testimony by a doctor. They are legally required to break patient confidentiality to report someone they suspect has tried to abort a pregnancy.

Yet what many denouncing the backward state of abortion law in Northern Ireland overlook is that this archaic law, the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, is also still the basis for abortion law in England and Wales. The only, and significant, difference is that the 1967 Abortion Act created exceptions to this law under which legal abortions could be carried out (before 1967 common law governed this in Scotland).

So as demands grow for abortion rights in Northern Ireland the question of decriminalising abortion across the UK, as all the major medical bodies now advocate, must also be raised. Such demands threaten Theresa May’s deal with the deeply homophobic and anti-abortion DUP, on which she relies to keep her government in office.

May’s DUP deal has already forced her into a U turn after last year’s general election. She overturned 50 years of discriminatory practice in order to get the government’s business through by agreeing to fund abortions for women travelling from Northern Ireland.

May does not want to tackle injustice, but she can be forced to move. Declaring she can do nothing because abortion is a devolved issue is avoiding responsibility. There hasn’t been a devolved parliament since January 2017 and polls show there is public support for change in Northern Ireland. One survey (Northern Ireland Life and Times 2016) showed 76 percent of respondents said abortion should definitely or probably be legal, rising to 81 percent in circumstances of fatal or serious foetal abnormality. Another poll (Amnesty 2016) showed that 73 percent of DUP voters support access to abortion in cases of rape or incest.

Many politicians who have tried to avoid the subject with talk of it being “controversial” or “difficult” are scrabbling to put themselves on the right side of history in the face of popular will. We now have the best opportunity for years to win abortion rights in Northern Ireland.

The Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai said over a century ago that access to safe abortion was “women’s fundamental democratic right”. Today the struggle in Ireland has transformed the debate and made the provision of abortion services something just, something to be proud of, something to celebrate.

The inspirational campaigners who repealed the eighth have created a momentum that, if we use it, could open the door to decriminalisation of abortion not only for women in the north, but also across Britain.

Judith Orr is the author of Abortion Wars: the fight for reproductive rights, published by Policy Press