This fantastic leap forward was a product of grassroots campaigning, but the battle is far from over, argues Amy O'Donoghue
The resounding Yes vote in Ireland’s referendum to remove the constitutional block (in the 8th Amendment) on abortion has shaken the social hold of the Catholic Church and has made an advance towards bodily autonomy for women in Ireland.
This win has been a long time coming, fought for by the left since the introduction of the 8th Amendment in 1983. Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has claimed this to be a ‘quiet revolution’ – an attempt to erase this history of agitation and reframe the win as the establishment’s gift to us.
The death of Savita Halappanavar, who developed sepsis after being denied an abortion while miscarrying in 2012, was the catalyst for a wave of public anger against the State’s restriction on abortion. This has grown and propelled the movement to repeal the 8th since. In September 2017, tens of thousands took part in the national March for Choice to demand the right to choose.
No longer able to contain the public pressure for repeal, Varadkar dropped his anti-choice stance and announced a referendum earlier this year, while other dominant figures of the establishment parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil followed suit in calling for a Yes vote.
The official civil society campaign, Together for Yes, problematically linked arms with Ireland’s right-wing leaders, who became the most visible faces of the official campaign, pushing the arguments of the radical left to the margins. This allowed the No side to present themselves as anti-establishment rebels in an attempt to exploit working class discontent and distrust of politicians, which caused a narrowing of opinion polls in the run up to the referendum.
Problems of strategy rose out of how Together for Yes viewed the voting population through a conservative (and inaccurate) lens. Focusing on ‘soft messaging’, they framed the Yes vote as a vote for ‘compassion’, rather than for a woman’s right to choose.
Despite such problems, the discussions initiated by grassroots activists on the streets and doorsteps around the country broke the silence around women’s experiences of abortion in Ireland and made the right to choose and women’s equality national issues.
The majority for Yes has significant implications for the influence of the Catholic Church in Irish society. Majorities in particular in rural parts of the country are a crushing defeat for the Church, which has for so long played a role in Ireland’s health and education systems and which for months used the pulpit to denounce the evils of repeal. This rejection of Church dogma is a major step towards the separation of Church and State.
In the coming months, the establishment parties will no doubt attempt to curtail the demands of the movement for choice while co-opting the issue fought for so long by the left. The fight must now be advanced for legislation that provides for abortion services that are safe and legal, but also free for all who need them, while also breaking with the stigma and shame imposed on so many women in the past.