The Abortion Referendum in Ireland: What Happened and What’s Next?

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

As ballots were counted in Ireland’s historic vote to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion last Saturday, an informal tally took place alongside the official count, documenting the number of miraculous medals and crucifixes found in ballot boxes, no doubt surreptitiously slipped in with a ballot by zealous voters. Ireland is a perplexing place, politically speaking. It typically holds itself out as a modern, liberal country, with an open economy, highly-educated population, and forward-thinking attitude, boasting the world’s first-ever adoption of legal same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015. It was also, until Saturday, home to one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.

The Eighth Amendment, which recognized a fetal right to life as equal to the right to life of the mother was adopted by referendum in 1983. It was interpreted as banning all abortion unless a serious risk to the life of the pregnant individual existed. Successive attempts to liberalize the law have been largely unsuccessful. However, an amendment specifying that women were entitled to travel abroad to access abortion care passed in 1992. That vote followed a public outcry at a Supreme Court case ruling that a pregnant 14-year-old had no right to travel to have a termination in England. Colloquially considered “an Irish solution to an Irish problem,” leagues of women and girls have accessed terminations in the UK and the Netherlands, and an unknown number have induced abortion through illegally importing and taking pills procured online. The bitter history of the Eighth involves deaths of women in Irish hospitals, and thousands of small journeys of exile for healthcare for women who can afford airfare and have the correct documents to leave and re-enter the country.

After results were announced, the only age group to vote to retain the provision was, somewhat predictably, those aged 64 and above. Although, in absolute terms, more over-65s voted to repeal the amendment than 18-24-year-olds did. The only constituency to vote no was Donegal, in the north-west of the country.

So, what changed?

Together For Yes, the coalition group advocating for a repeal of the provision, led a superb campaign, truly drawing together a motley blend of political advocates from all across the establishment spectrum: grass-root feminist groups, seasoned campaigners, and polished medical professionals, and ultimately unleashed a veritable army of canvassers to change minds on doorsteps. At one telling point in the campaign, when crowdfunding the cost of posters, Together for Yes set a €50,000 fundraising target for an entire week in April. They reached the figure in two hours.

Like many others, I spent a long afternoon Friday refreshing the page, stunned, as the funding amount continued to climb. It ultimately capped out at €500,000, ten times the original amount sought, a clear indication for a desire for change from a wide range of engaged individuals, with radically different reasons for donating.

Facing an extremely well-funded opposition, the Yes side also likely benefited from a decision by internet giants Facebook, Google and YouTube to ban all referendum-related advertisements that didn’t originate in Ireland. The decision came just two weeks before the vote amid concerns that the referendum result would be controlled by foreign money. Though a gross simplification of the factors at play in electoral interference elsewhere, the eventual result might give heart to campaigners for fair and transparent elections.

Turnout was high for the historic vote—the third highest in Irish history—which was an early, hopeful gesture at a good result for the Yes side, because it suggested that voters who would generally stay at home (read: young voters) had been engaged by the debate.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum over 2,000 individuals registered to be included on the supplemental electoral register; the last opportunity to be included in the vote. Replicating what occurred prior to the 2015 same-sex marriage vote, major universities held voting drives to encourage students to vote for the first time. Waves of returning citizens thronged the major airports and ferry terminals. The #HomeToVote hashtag on Twitter is a repository of individual journeys home to remove the abortion ban, with some travelling huge distances to cast their ballot last Friday. Though not ultimately necessary, Stena Line, a major ferry company operating between the UK and Ireland, considered holding a ferry after concerned travellers took to Twitter to implore the company to help them get home and vote after a series of train delays threatened their journey. The student unions of Oxford, Nottingham and Birmingham each passed motions to financially support students to travel home to vote. The stories go on.

The draconian effects of the Eighth Amendment have featured prominently in Irish media over the last half-decade, slowly gathering momentum and forcing politicians to announce positions on the amendment. The country faced a particular inflection point after the death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital in 2012. Halappanavar died from sepsis after miscarrying. During the miscarriage, she and her husband repeatedly requested that the pregnancy be terminated. Attending medical staff did not perceive a sufficient threat to her life to justify a termination under Irish law given that a fetal heartbeat was detectable. By the time that threat had materialized, it was too late, and Halappanavar died of cardiac arrest.

When the official result of the referendum was announced in Dublin Castle on Saturday evening, gathered crowds chanted her name. A mural of her at a popular Dublin pub has slowly gathered piles of flowers and handwritten notes apologizing that she had to die so that the country would reform the laws; that the Yes vote was for her.

The vote for repeal also follows an astonishing political reverse by major Irish politicians and leaders of every major political party—an utterly unthinkable proposition mere years ago. The No campaign was primarily lead by two groups, Love Both and Save the 8th, who argued that the proposals were too extreme, that they represented a gateway to abortion up until birth, and, particularly in the last week, pedalling the utterly false claim that “hard cases”—fatal fetal abnormality, rape, incest—could be dealt with through legislation without repealing the constitutional amendment.

While it’s not entirely clear which messages resonated most strongly with the populace, early analysis indicates that personal stories in the media were a strong factor in many people’s Yes votes. Groups like Terminations for Medical Reasons featured prominently in the media, sharing heartbreaking stories of travelling to the UK to terminate non-viable pregnancies and imploring voters to “stop punishing tragedy.”

What’s Left?

Though mood in the Repeal camp is understandably buoyant, nothing has immediately changed for the 12 women per day who leave Ireland to access terminations. As it stands, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013—the legislation codifying the Eighth Amendment—remains in place, and so abortion is still illegal until replacement legislation is passed. The governing political party has promised the legislation will be passed within the year. One of the veteran campaign leaders of the Together for Yes coalition, Ailbhe Smyth stated at the release of the result that it was “not a mandate, but an instruction” to government to legislate along the grounds indicated during the campaign. The proposed bill would allow abortion “without indication” (i.e. at a woman’s election) up until 12 weeks gestation is released, and afterwards if the health or life of the woman is at risk, or in cases of fatal fetal abnormality.

Northern Irish women remain without legal access to abortion, though everywhere else in the UK offers legal abortion care. The relevant legislation remains the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, a Victorian piece of legislation passed before women could vote. Pressure is mounting on Westminster to commit to extending abortion rights to women north of the Irish border. After the introduction of legal abortion care in Ireland it may however prove easier for Northern Irish women to cross the border into Ireland to access terminations than the status quo, which requires Northern Irish women to travel to Britain to access terminations.

Minors are another constituency of individuals whose position will be more complicated than prevailing political narratives suggest. Under the age of 16, it is commonly held that parents must exercise medical consent rights on behalf of their children. This will likely prevent some teenage girls from accessing terminations in Ireland unless their parents agree to the procedure, or until the law is changed. The spectre of illegal abortion by imported pill remains a concern for this group. While it is difficult to convince a wary populace that teenagers should be able to access terminations, the current political discussions risk the prospect of no provision being made for a significant and vulnerable group of individuals who become pregnant.

Failing to make provision for minors to access terminations may lead to a replication of the most tragic cases endured under the Eighth Amendment, and teens may be forced to bear the burden of reproductive rights policy that the voting population considered too intolerable to continue forcing adult women to bear. Topically, debates leading up to the referendum, and the Citizen’s Assembly recommendations on the question indicate a strong mandate to improve sexual education in Ireland. The presentation of factual sex education is limited in Irish schools and frequently interfered with by the religious ethos held by the vast majority of Irish schools. This vote might change that, too. Otherwise, Irish political culture shows no signs of wanting to overhaul the sex education Irish teenagers receive to include information about abortion, which currently does not even appear on the HSE’s targeted teenage crisis pregnancy website.

Amidst ongoing analysis of what, precisely, has changed in the last 40 years, the country is experiencing a strange blend of joyous celebration and solemn reflection, considering the number of tragedies and unnecessary deaths in which the Eighth Amendment was a factor to push the country to this moment. It reflects a point in the country’s continued maturation away from a politics controlled by a cabal of Catholic leaders and political elites, and should be sobering for politicians pandering largely to older voters – plainly, young voters are willing to be politically engaged and a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, all sectors of Irish society are displaying a significantly more liberal approach to social affairs than political discourse might suggest. It feels like it’s time for politics and media to catch up.

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