On Friday 25 May the people of the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the “eighth amendment” to the constitution, righting a wrong which for almost 35 years had put women′s lives in danger by banning access to abortion even more tightly than it was before under 19th century law.
The vote to repeal was carried by 66.4%, with just Donegal voting not to repeal. Opinion polls have shown majorities in favour of repeal for several years. However the organisation and mobilisation by the anti-choice lobby for the referendum was substantial. It makes the large majority for repeal a very significant victory.
The eighth amendment enshrined in law equal status between a foetus and woman and resulted in the ban on abortion in Ireland becoming almost total. Medical professionals felt unable to act even when a woman’s life was in danger. Technically the repeal will not legalise or decriminalise any abortion in Ireland, but it does lay the basis for further legislation which will legalise abortion, to which the amendment was previously a block.
The Irish government says it intends to follow votes from the Citizens Assembly in 2017 and legislate for abortion, without restriction, up until 12 weeks. While Ireland would have a significantly lower time limit than other countries where abortion is legal, it would not have other restrictions such as the need for women to get permission from two doctors, as is the case in the UK.
The referendum result was greeted with cheers, tears, and chants of ″yes, yes, yes″ and ″Savita, Savita, Savita″ by crowds throughout Ireland.
The memory of Savita Halappanavar played a significant role in forcing through a referendum and winning the campaign. Savita lost her life when, at 17 weeks pregnant, she suffered a miscarriage. Despite being told by doctors that the foetus would not survive, she was refused an abortion while there was still a foetal heartbeat. Savita and her family were forced to go through the agony of waiting days for the heartbeat to stop. As a result of that wait she contracted an infection which lead to septicaemia and her death. A subsequent investigation concluded that confusion over the eighth amendment was a contributing factor in her death.
A mural of Savita in Dublin was by the time the result was announced on 26 May covered in handwritten messages taped to the wall. One message read: ″Sorry we were too late. But we are here now. We didn′t forget you.″
The ″In her shoes″ stories published during the campaign highlighted the significance of women being denied basic medical care in winning the referendum. Such stories demonstrated the way Irish society treated pregnant women — more as vessels for pregnancies than as human beings.
Women, fed up of decades of discrimination, of abuse in the Catholic Church, of rape, of Magdalene laundries, of being made to feel shame, of hushed-up journeys to England, voted for change. For ″never again″. On the day of the vote social media was filled with stories of mothers and daughters, and in some cases grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, going to vote ″repeal″ together.
On Sunday 27 May stories were shared on social media of priests announcing from the pulpit, at the first Mass after the referendum, that ″yes″ voters were not welcome, people got up and walked out.
This rolling back of the power of the Catholic Church in Irish society is a good thing, and long overdue.
The #HomeToVote movement played an important role in the referendum. Women, mainly young, who have left Ireland in recent years made journeys home — consciously connecting their journeys with those of women forced to travel to access abortion... and thousands helped them fundraise for their plane tickets.
Many in the crowd outside Dublin Castle carried placards saying ″the north will be next″. They are right; the referendum result in the Republic of Ireland will act as a catalyst for change in Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK where women cannot access abortion “at home”. Some have called for a similar referendum in Northern Ireland, but no such referendum is necessary. All that is needed is for the 1967 Abortion Act to be extended to Northern Ireland.
The 1967 Abortion Act also needs to be changed. We need to get rid of the two doctor rule and the restriction of reasons for termination, and the qualification that “continuing the pregnancy would involve greater risk than termination to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any of her existing children”.
This historic vote vastly improve the lives of women in Ireland, in the long run in the whole of the island of Ireland, and will act as a beacon of hope for those fighting for abortion rights in other parts of the world.