Ireland: movement for abortion rights surges forward

Sinn Fein backs 'Vote Yes' - the repeal the Eighth Amendment campaign

By Bridget Anderson

On Friday 25 May 2018 a referendum will be held on whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Republic of Ireland’s Constitution in order to pave the way for progressive reforms that will enable women to access safe and legal abortion in Ireland.

The campaign to ‘Repeal the 8th’ has built up huge support across Irish society and stands a very good chance of succeeding when voters in go to the polls later this month. A recent opinion poll for the Irish Times indicated that 47 per cent of people would vote to Repeal the 8th, while 28 per cent would vote to Retain it.

The tragic death of a 31 years old woman in 2012 marked a turning point in the Irish struggle for abortion rights. Sativa Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, was denied an abortion after a foetus was found to have a heartbeat despite the fact that the foetus was unviable and a miscarriage was therefore inevitable. She died from septicaemia one week after the miscarriage.

A wave of public outrage followed Sativa’s avoidable death, with a series of large protests in Dublin and candlelight vigils across Ireland. Thousands gathered to demand a change in the country’s abortion laws to prevent such a tragedy being repeated. The public reaction had an immediate political impact. ‘The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act’ passed in the Dail in 2013 – an Act which strengthened up the law for women seeking abortion in circumstances where their life is at risk.

In the years since Sativa’s death a broad and diverse coalition of organisations have built up a large movement in support of abortion rights in Ireland. This has succeeded in securing a popular vote on the question of repealing the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution that has been in place since 1983 and which equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with that of an embryo or foetus. This has the effect of criminalising abortion in all cases except where continuing a pregnancy would result in the death of the woman.

In the event of a ‘Yes’ vote the 8th Amendment will be deleted from the Irish Constitution and new wording inserted which empowers the Dail to make laws allowing women to access abortion in Ireland. The Irish government has indicated that it would then propose new laws providing women with the right to an abortion during early pregnancy for a their own personal reasons as well as later on during pregnancy under the circumstances of there being a risk to the mental or physical health of the woman or if there is a diagnosis of a fatal foetal condition.

The recently established ‘Together For Yes’ campaign is a broad coalition of over 70 organisations, groups and communities representing a diverse cross-section of Irish civil society. It is co-led by the National Women’s Council, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment and the Abortion Rights Campaign. This umbrella group is leading the campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum.

Irish pro-choice campaigners emphasise that the current legal situation does not reflect public opinion in Ireland. Every day 12 women and girls from Ireland have an abortion, with nine traveling to Britain and at least three risking a 14 year prison sentence to take safe but illegal abortion pills.

Amongst Ireland’s political parties there is strong support for abortion rights reform. Sinn Fein and Labour are officially backing a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are allowing members to take a free position on the issue.

Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar is urging a Yes vote. He recently tweeted ‘the 8th amendment does not prevent abortion. It just lets us sweep it under the carpet. No more.’

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald TD is playing a prominent role in the movement to repeal the Eighth. During the official launch of Sinn Fein’s campaign for the referendum, McDonald said:

‘Sinn Fein will be vigorously campaigning for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. We know the damage that it’s done to women’s lives. It’s absolutely imperative that the Eighth Amendment is removed from the constitution and it’s imperative that we – in the course of the debate – talk about care, talk about compassion, talk about placing trust in women, and in our doctors. Above all, our debate has to be respectful and informed. I believe it can be. I very much hope that it will be. People have known of so many different episodes where things have happened and where women have been hurt, or women have lost their lives and we’ve said as a society repeatedly to ourselves and to each other that these things mustn’t every happen again. So on the 25th of May it’s the opportunity for people to act with care, with compassion to trust themselves, to trust women ,to trust their mothers, their sisters, their wives, their spouses, and to ensure that we have in Ireland, available to women – the healthcare that they need and that we allow our doctors to do their jobs.’

The campaign to repeal the Eighth via popular vote comes just three years after Ireland voted overwhelmingly to support same-sex marriage in a referendum. With over 62 per cent voting yes, Ireland was the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015.

The Seanad (upper house of the Irish legislature) recently passed a Bill, put forward by Fintan Warfield of Sinn Fein, that bans LGBTQ conversion therapy.

The broad, mass movements in support of LGBT and abortion rights in Ireland are a reflection of the big, sweeping changes taking place within Irish society.