Polly Barklem from the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (personal capacity) spoke to Solidarity about the referendum in Ireland on 25 May, on repealing the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution. That amendment effectively gives a foetus equal status in law with a woman, and often results in medical professionals refusing to carry out abortions even in situations where they are legal, i.e. when the woman’s life is in danger.
You can find out more about the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign online at londonirisharc.com
What is the current situation for women who need an abortion?
The statistics are nine women a day from the Republic of Ireland and two from Northern Ireland travel to get an abortion. But that is estimated, because a lot of women won’t give their home address to clinics in the UK, they give the address of the person they are staying with. And the figures don’t include women who are buying pills from the internet. There are periods when those pills get seized and women can’t get hold of pills. We have no reliable data on that. It is unlikely that outlawing abortion reduces abortion that much, and where it does it is poor and otherwise vulnerable women that are affected.
Contraception was legalised in Ireland in 1980. Before then lots more women got pregnant when they didn’t want to be. But in small towns across the whole of Ireland there was one doctor and they could decide whether or not to prescribe contraception. Also it might be embarrassing for women to go to that doctor. But time has moved on. There is now better sex education in the south, than in the north. In Northern Ireland it is shockingly bad.
Do you think the campaign to repeal the 8th can win?
I am hopeful, but at the same time we have to be cautious. It is the same culture in Ireland as has been there for a very long time. The worry is that people will be thinking they are not sure about the issues and will not come out to vote. It is important to get the message out that it is not that you are voting for abortion if you vote to repeal it is that you are assisting women who are otherwise going to have to travel to access an abortion. There is a lot of work to do.
There is cross-party support for change in the Republic, including Sinn Fein. We’ve asked Sinn Fein for their views on the situation in the north. They said, like a lot of parties, we support women but the political situation in Northern Ireland is too difficult so there is nothing we can do. But power-sharing and politics divide on sectarian lines has brought about impasse on many issues, not only on contentious issues.
Lots of my friends in the campaign are from Northern Ireland and they left because of what it is like, because progressive change seems to be not possible.
What is the campaign on the ground?
There is a massive coalition called Together for Yes which brings together the main groups that have been campaigning until now with others [bit.ly/t-f-y]. They are doing lots of work on the ground, knocking on doors, talking to people on the street. One key message is explaining that there are already 11 women a day travelling for an abortion. It’s a harm prevention measure, that these women will be able to have the procedure that they need close to home.
There are lots of issues around fundraising because Ireland has a law (Sipo) which prevents outside donations which could help sway political campaigns (such as the Together for Yes campaign); there are limits and only Irish citizens can donate.
We are reminding people to go home to vote and making sure people are registered in time.
But in Ireland people have been campaigning for this for 30-odd years.
What about the opposition?
The sort of tactics they use are: people falsely representing themselves and facts, for example someone who said they were a nurse talking about things they had seen in a clinic and turns out to be a hospital porter who couldn’t have seen those things. But a lot of it comes down to punishing women for having sex. Especially with the rhetoric around “allowing” women to have abortions. You are allowed to have an abortion if you are unfortunate enough to get pregnant when it is not your fault, or you are really ill. It is not something that is available as a right, because you don’t want to give yourself over to having a baby. There is the “Love them both” message which suggests that the foetus is worth exactly the same as a woman, which I, and lots of other pro-choice people, fundamentally disagree with. Regardless, a woman is a living breathing grown-up human being and a foetus is not.
They are also saying that it is “trendy” to be pro-choice if you are young. So they say “don’t go with the trend, it’s cool to stand on your own to feet and be pro-life”. They’ve noticed that it is the older demographic that is in their camp. They are trying to get younger people to try to connect. I don’t think it has worked. This tactic comes from US I think. In the States they have big pro-life camps where teenagers go to learn how to be anti-choice activists.
Is there a big divide in opinion between rural and urban areas?
Definitely. In Dublin there are many more people in favour of repealing. [According to opinion polls support for repeal and legislation up to 12 weeks is strongest in Dublin (64%), among women (58%), among urban voters (60%) and among younger voters.] People are driving to and campaigning in rural areas to try to get the information out there. But the divisions may be not so obvious. For instance a lot of older women, who have voted for the amendment [in 1983], will have seen other generations of women have to travel for an abortion. Even if they were anti-choice then, seeing the practical implications may have changed minds.
The Citizen’s Assembly [special committee which last year voted to amend the 8th] and more sharing of personal stories – that has all had an impact. Telling individual women’s stories is really eye-opening. Abortion wasn’t spoken about for a really long time. There still is some stigma around it. Other difficult issues and personal experiences are also being spoken about in Ireland — such as the laundries, the mother-and-baby homes. There is a groundswell of learning about what women have been through.
What do you think are the key social changes which have led up to this moment?
When big stories break, such the death of Savita Halappanavar [a woman who died in 2012 after being denied an abortion] and other stories that aren’t as widely publicised, where women have been confined, or locked in a mental institution, or had to have a forced cesarian there is a public outcry. These events have led up to the repeal campaign. But Ireland is just, in general, modernising. The Equal Marriage vote [in a 2015 referendum to legalise same-sex marriage] was huge. It is becoming a less religious society. How the Church acted as a proxy for the state, to do lots of care work; that has changed.
The Church has lost authority.
Do you see this as part of renewed wider feminist organising around the world?
Yes. But I’m also aware that politics is cyclical. You can go forward quite far and you feel like you are part of a movement but then things get rolled back. There are a lot of people calling themselves feminist, changing things for women, in the last few years. The protests in Poland have been phenomenal. In Poland they are fighting for their lives. But elsewhere people are showing up on the streets, being more active. Social media helps with that. Online activism feeds into physical activism.
What has the media coverage been like?
Over 25% of the Irish population are on Twitter — much fewer than in Britain. It feels like there is a lot of momentum online but this not reaching a lot of people in Ireland. To fill the communication gap there is a lot of letter writing (to the local press) happening. LIARC recently had a letter-writing workshop. The anti-choice people get a lot of letters and editorials printed, and that is where people get their news from. It is therefore really important to us to make sure that we are contacting people outside our online echo chamber and are able to reach those people that are only reading the print media, letting them know the stories of the women who have travelled, and why they should vote to remove the 8th amendment.
What possible effects will there be for women in Northern Ireland?
Stella Creasy got an amendment through to give women from Northern Ireland access to NHS-funded abortions in Great Britain. We are hoping to use that progress together with a bit of the momentum around the campaign in the Republic. Creasy has just spearheaded a letter which has been signed by around 150 MPs and Lords asking for decriminalisation in Northern Ireland.
On the other hand every few years politicians at Westminster challenge abortion rights, there is an attempt to reduce the time limit, and this could happen again.
I think if the vote goes our way it will put a lot of pressure on Northern Irish politicians to start engaging with the issue, not least because women are going to be able to travel to Ireland for an abortion. If you can get the pill prescribed in Ireland (that’s the way a lot of countries are moving because the pill is so safe) then it makes even more of a mockery of keeping the 1861 law in the north. Brexit may play a part here, but that’s another issue.
Maybe the challenge in the UK would be to bring time limits down, to be in line with possible legislation introduced in the Republic?
Yes, if they repeal the 8th that means there is an opening for legislative change. The idea about unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks has been circulating. That is the situation in lots of European countries. Having abortion up to 12 weeks is better than having no access but it doesn’t take into account the scans that happen after 12 weeks and many other circumstances.
That said I think it is extremely unlikely that it will be up to 12 weeks on request and nothing after that. Abortions will be available if there is a threat to the life of the mother, risks to physical and mental health of the mother, if the foetus is unviable, or has a severe illness and so on.
This is helpful on this question: www.newstalk.com/Government-approves-draft-laws-to-replace-8th-amendment
What can people do to help?
The main thing is write letters to Irish newspapers. We have a how-to guide on our website. Other than that, awareness raising is important. But we can’t fundraise from anyone who isn’t an Irish citizen. Talking to people who are Irish and who are eligible to vote (if they have been out of the country for less than 18 months), encouraging them and maybe helping people to go home and vote.
All of our Irish members will be travelling back to help canvass, going into the more rural areas.