Ireland Votes to Legalize Abortion. What Comes Next?

Ireland voted in a landslide to support abortion rights. But making abortion care available will take much more.

"It is not enough for it to be legal. It also has to be accessible, and really the only way you can do that is through a public health service. That is going to be the next battle for socialist campaigners, pro-choice campaigners," said Dublin City Councillor Éilis Ryan. Charles McQuillan / Getty Images

To Isolde Carmody, Ireland’s overwhelming vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was a vote to continue down the road that her great-grand-uncle, Joseph Plunkett, and his contemporaries fought for in 1916, in the first steps toward an independent Irish Republic.

Joe was definitely a feminist, a revolutionary. He deeply believed in equality and in social justice, and that was why he was involved in the revolution in 1916,” Carmody told Rewire.News. Her great-grandmother and grandmother fought for women’s health care and access to information on abortion rights. She continued that tradition campaigning for “yes” in Leitrim.

Irish voters turned out on Friday to repeal the Eighth Amendment, with around 68 percent voting to decriminalize abortion care, according to exit polling. Final results were not available at the time of publication.

Carmody was infuriated to see Plunkett’s image and the reference to the 1916 proclamation on an anti-choice sign urging a “No” vote in the referendum on Ireland’s total abortion ban. “It is just a complete misrepresentation of what they were all about and the values on which this state was founded,” she said. “We released a statement saying that if Joe were still around, he would definitely be voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment. He would have voted against it being introduced in the first place.”

There was plenty of noise for a “yes” vote, even in the conservative part of Ireland where she lived. And the results proved that it was Carmody’s view of Ireland’s past and future that held. 

A busload of canvassers from Dublin went to Roscommon and Leitrim the day before the vote to do some last-minute visibility for the “yes” campaign. In Carrick-on-Shannon, they stretched out along the Cumann na mBan bridge, named for the revolutionary women’s organization that fought in 1916 in all garrisons but onethe one led by Eamon de Valera, a former president of Ireland, who oversaw the writing of Ireland’s Constitution. The symbolism was important to the organizers, who like Carmody believed in the unfulfilled promise of that rebellion, in a different kind of Ireland that saw women’s role in the struggle for justice and equality as essential and equal. 

I am really glad I finished my last day of canvassing outside of Dublin, meeting new people. Sometimes you are in a bit of a bubble and you forget that there is a whole country of people involved in this, local campaigns big and small,” said Sen. Lynn Ruane, an independent member of the upper house of the Irish parliament. 

Ruane was a member of the parliament’s committee on the Eighth Amendment, which recommended repeal as well as legalizing abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. “I was always optimistic, but I am feeling so much more positive. To be able to go from sitting inside a committee room to making the recommendations to coming out and meeting people all over Ireland that want to support the recommendations, it really is a privilege and an honor.”

Even before the results were announced, she said, “I think Ireland has changed.”

Ireland’s Future After the Eighth Amendment 

What happens now? Nothing will change immediately, according to Wendy Lyon, a lawyer and pro-choice organizer based in Ireland and born in the United States, because the anti-choice law is still on the books. “We are guaranteed that there will be some attempt to challenge it,” she said. “They have done this with pretty much any referendum that has advanced a liberal agenda. They have failed every time, but they will try it again.”

Government officials have said they want to change legislation by the end of the year.

“We obviously have a huge body of work to do in relation to the legislation. You will have people taking lots of amendments and trying to hold up the legislation,” Ruane said. “I think we will get it through the houses eventually, but we definitely will have a fight and there will be probably lots of filibustering and we probably will need to just stay strong and get through together. Whoever is in agreement needs to work together and put politics aside just to get that legislation through.”

To Dublin City Councillor Éilis Ryan, the question is how abortion care is best provided once legalized. “It is not enough for it to be legal. It also has to be accessible, and really the only way you can do that is through a public health service. That is going to be the next battle for socialist campaigners, pro-choice campaigners, is ‘How can we ensure that this isn’t yet another service that is outsourced to a private company that doesn’t have women’s best interests at heart?’”  

The question of abortion care, in other words, is intrinsically tied to questions about the broader health-care system. The Catholic Church remains deeply involved in the hospitals, and, Lyon said, even apart from the Eighth Amendment, the model of birth care is controlling. “You hear people say, ‘Doctors are the new priests.’ It is not that you won’t still have doctors trying to pressure women, but the difference is that they won’t have the Constitution to back up their arguments anymore. People would threaten to go into the High Court and they would cite the Eighth Amendment as their justification. If the Eighth Amendment is gone, obviously, it makes it that much harder.”

The question remains of what kind of country Ireland will be. On that front, too, the campaigners look to the history of Irish struggles for independence. “We have to have states that serve everybody no matter what their religion is,” Meehan said. “It was buried in history and forgotten, but when the young Irelanders started off in the 1840s, inspired by the 1848 rebellions, one of their main opponents was the Catholic Church. They came up with a very good slogan, actually. Two of them. One of them was ‘Priests Out of Politics.’ The other was, ‘You can take your religion from Rome, but take your politics from home.’ That has been forgotten, lost in the dustbin of history and all that, but it has a very contemporary 21st century relevance.”

Lynn Boylan, a Member of the European Parliament from Sinn Féin, agreed. “Today’s result is seismic,” Boylan said. It is an historic breaking of the old Ireland with it’s attachment to the church and conservative politics in favor of a new future”
“While of course the Marriage Equality referendum was hugely significant and was a sign of a new era, it was a vote about tolerance and respect. The Repeal campaign was so much more than that, it was not just a vote for women and their rights over their own bodies. It was, I believe also a cathartic experience for the people of Ireland. It brought out into the open the decades of mistreatment of women, the hidden family secrets, the reality of pregnancy and showed people that their experience was not a unique one.”
“When the euphoria of the vote has died down,” Boylan continued. “I really believe that this campaign will serve as a healing process for the Irish people, particularly the older generations who will have finally broke the control of the church over their private lives.”

The Repeal Campaign

The vote to legalize abortion care was the hard work of organizers like Izzy Kamikaze (the name she’s gone by for years), a veteran of abortion rights referenda and Ireland’s marriage equality referendum. It was important to her for Roscommon and Leitrimthe only places to vote against marriage equality, though the district boundaries have since changedto improve its showing, to prove that even in supposedly conservative parts of Ireland, women had talked to each other about their experiences, people had made contact, if quietly. 

“Down here we are a little grassroots campaign. Very underfunded, under resourced,” she said. “Never enough people to do what we are trying to do, but … we have been very well received by people.”

Kamikaze noted the importance of putting a human face on the “yes” campaign. “A big thing for me is the fetishization of the images of fetuses. There are no women in these posters. There is nobody whose body this is growing inside. She is completely cut out of the picture,” she said. So she gathered “yes” campaigners to stand near a massive billboard erected by the Iona Institute, a Catholic organization that has opposed changes to Ireland’s abortion laws. “It is this huge, huge billboard with this CGI fetus floating in empty space, removed from the womb, the mother, the world. The caption on it is ‘One of us.’ A bunch of us got together with our own posters and placards and we did a little photo shoot in front of that billboard and the caption for it was, ‘What is missing from this poster? One of us,’ meaning the women who were standing underneath holding the posters who have been very invisible, certainly in the ‘no’ campaign.”

Activists in rural Ireland counted social media visibility as important, staging photoshoots in town to spread on Twitter and Facebook. They wanted to show that even in the heart of conservative towns there was, in fact, support for “yes.” The final referendum results showed that to be true. 

It was the involvements of all parts of Irish societynot in a partisan fight, since the vote often split parties, but in a social movement that dared do what few pro-choice organizers even in the United States do: talk honestly about abortion care, about pregnancy, about what it means to have a medical crisis or to not have had any choice about the life you were to have. Family members told their stories for the first times to one anotherone canvasser had met a mother and daughter who had both had abortions and only told their stories to one another because of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. It was striking to walk around Dublin and pass hundreds of people in “yes” buttons, stickers, or the hotly-coveted Repeal jumpers. A country dominated for so long by the Catholic Church and its view of morality was having a public conversation about what has been the most private of issues.

And in a repeat of the country’s 2015’s marriage equality referendum, thousands of young people driven abroad in part by economic austerity came #HomeToVote for a future Ireland that might once again be theirs.

Campaigns like Choice Ireland formed in 2007, started years before the referendum was called. Organizer Wendy Lyon said of that time, “I distinctly remember saying that it would be about 20 years to get to the point that we are at now, which is just over ten years.”

But the campaign built slowly and steadily over that time, she said. “There is no real point at which I think we can really say, ‘OK, the campaign actually started.’ Certainly when the Citizens Assembly issued its decision, that was sort of the first hint that, yes, we were going to have a referendum, but we were all a little bit afraid that then it was going to go to the Oireachtas Committee and the Oireachtas Committee was going to scale it back to an ‘exceptional cases’ kind of thing. I suppose it was such a gradual build up that by the time they finally said, ‘Yes, there will be a referendum’ we all knew there was going to be a referendum.”

There was the trade union campaign to repeal the country’s anti-choice amendment, which began years ago with activists in Ireland’s labor movement pushing the trade unions to take a position on the Eighth. John Meehan, a longtime pro-choice and trade union activist, points to unions like Mandate, which represents mainly women who work in shops, for their leadership on the issue, and to the combined union support for a survey called “Abortion Is a Workplace Issue.” The survey dug into the ways Ireland’s laws, which relegate most people who need abortion care to traveling to England or elsewhere, have affected women in the workplacefrom taking time off and needing doctor’s notes that are impossible to get for an abortion to the question of low wages that make abortion services inaccessible. “When groups of people just sat down and just talked about the issue, it was much more of a trade union issue than they conceived of in their little box,” Meehan said.

The U.S. anti-choice movement spent heavily on the Irish referendum. “These days the Irish church isn’t so strong and there is no question the money in this campaign is coming from the [United States],” said Kamikaze. “It is coming from American evangelicals and the general ragtag and bobtail alliance that backed Trump and that backed Brexit in the UK and that are trying to turn back the tide everywhere. Abortion rights is a big issue for them.”

Sarah Jones at the New Republic pointed out the global networks that promote anti-choice (and anti-LGTBQ) legislation and their role in sending campaigners to Ireland. BuzzFeed reported on the apps created for two anti-choice campaigns, LoveBoth and Save the Eighth, and the Washington, D.C. company that created them. The data given to these apps, it turns out, could be shared with the firm’s other clients, which include the Trump campaign, the National Rifle Association, and other anti-choice organizations in the United States. 

“These things are done kind of in a clever way,” said Ryan. “A lot of the organizations might have been funded by American money until the start of the referendum campaign. After that point, it is no longer legal to accept it, but they have had the benefit of using that to develop their messaging and their branding over a long period of time. Then, certainly there were online ads that were being funded from the United States and being directed to Ireland. That was something that was definitely against regulations.”

The New York Times reported on the Irish referendum as a “test” for social media corporations’ ability to block ads that don’t meet local regulations.

The long slog of Irish pro-choice activists dating to before 1983, when the Eighth Amendment was made lawthrough bomb threats, excommunication threats, through horror stories like the X case and the death of Savita Halappanavargot Ireland to this point.

The remarkable thing about this campaignand it has been so intense for so many womenbut 170,000 Irish women have travelled in the last 35 years and have had abortions,” Kamikaze said. “One of the things in this campaign is that women have talked about that, women that have kept that silent for years have talked to their friends and family about that and about why the law needs to change. This whole silent underground campaign that is going on with women who are talking about their personal experiences under the law. And not just of abortion, because the Eighth Amendment also affects the care of women in every pregnancy.”

It was that quiet conversation that spoke so loudly on Friday. Even the longtime campaigners were shocked, and broke down in tears.