UPDATE, May 26, 9:50 a.m.: Irish voters on Friday voted to repeal the country’s anti-choice Eighth Amendment, according to exit polling that showed around 68 percent of voters sided against the law criminalizing abortion.
Nine women last weekend paddled canoes down the Liffey, the river that winds through the center of Dublin, Ireland, bearing banners that read “Together for Yes,” “Don’t Make Irish Women Get The Boat” and “Nine women travel across water to the UK every day.”
From the quays and the famed Ha’penny Bridge, activists bearing “Repeal the 8th” banners chant, “Not the church and not the state, women must decide their fate!”
The signs and the nine women in the canoes were references to the average number of women who travel from Ireland to England to access abortion services every day. The action was an attempt to sway undecided voters to vote yes for legal abortion care in Ireland. “The term ‘to take the boat’ has always meant, in Ireland, having an abortion,” said Éilis Ryan, who sits on the Dublin City Council, one of the organizers of the event and a longtime socialist feminist activist with the Workers’ Party. “It is something that is quite a powerful phrase.”
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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With the referendum on Ireland’s Eighth Amendment coming on May 25, the paddlers dramatized the reality of abortion access in Ireland: Irish women are receiving abortion care, but having to go through an arduous and expensive process of travel in order to do so. “We think a lot of the people who are still considering how to vote are probably people who don’t want to see an increase in the number of abortions that happen. We just want to remind them that it already happens,” Ryan said. If people can’t afford to travel, they find a way to get access to pills for abortion medication. It’s hard to get exact numbers, but thousands of packages of pills are confiscated each year.
The Eighth Amendment, which “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right,” was passed by referendum in 1983, as other countries on both sides of the Atlantic were liberalizing abortion law. Abortion was illegal before the amendment’s passage. After it, the legal status of the fetus was enshrined in the Irish Constitution as equal to that of the pregnant person—and in practice, that has meant the fetus often has greater rights.
Ireland, in other words, has been living with the consequences what’s known in the United States as “fetal personhood” law. “Pregnant women, with cancer or other diseases, requiring treatment which might compromise their pregnancy either have to forgo treatment—possibly meaning death—or have to travel to the UK for terminations to allow them access [to] treatment post-termination, due to fear of criminal proceedings,” Gráinne Healy, longtime activist and coauthor of Ireland Says Yes: The Inside Story of How the Vote for Marriage Equality Was Won told Rewire.News.
The Catholic Church has been deeply intertwined with the Irish state from its founding, when in separating from English colonial control, Ireland sought a national identity that was different, celebrating the Catholicism that had been marginalized under British rule. Today, though its influence has diminished, it controls primary schools and hospitals across the country, and though it has played a smaller role in the repeal campaign, Healy wrote, “Behind the scenes the church are backing the No in a major way.”
But the church’s reputation was damaged by revelations around the Magdalene laundries—state-funded, church-run institutions where girls were locked away and put to unpaid labor for a range of sins that often included sexual behavior and unwed pregnancy. That reputation was further hurt by the discovery in 2017 of a mass grave of children at the “mother and baby home” at Tuam, where unwed mothers had given birth.
That Irish-not-English identity still plays a strong role in the minds of campaigners. “No” signs dotting Dublin refer constantly to the abortion rate in England, with one prominent one reading, “In England 1 in 5 babies are aborted. Don’t Bring This To Ireland.” Yet “taking the boat” has a different resonance in a country with such a history of economic emigration, from the Great Famine of the 1840s to the 2008 financial crisis and austerity still racking Ireland, when external forces—colonial rule in the case of the famine, the European Union institutions in the case of economic austerity—enforced suffering on Irish people.
Pro-choicers note that if people are really concerned with Irish sovereignty, allowing abortion to happen safely in Ireland would be the appropriate move. A wave of movement activity, from protests against water charges to the successful referendum for marriage equality, helped spur the referendum.
John Meehan, a trade union and pro-choice activist who had been involved since the 1970s distributing then-illegal contraception, recalled battles after the passage of the Eighth Amendment where conservative forces went after women’s clinics that offered clandestine information about traveling for abortion services. “There was even, believe it or not, a campaign to close down a phone line,” Meehan said. “There were big demonstrations [along the Liffey], chanting a phone number ‘679-4700’ because the phone number was banned. You would see photos of those demonstrations where the Irish Times blanked out the phone number and just showed the demonstration.”
But it has been a series of prominent horror stories that helped drive the shift in Irish opinion to the point where ”repeal” leads in the polls. In 1992, the “X” case of a 14-year-old rape victim whose parents tried to take her to Britain for abortion care, rocked Ireland. The High Court, informed by local police, issued an injunction preventing her from leaving the country, effectively keeping her a prisoner in Ireland. Thousands of people took to the streets; her family appealed to the Ireland Supreme Court, which ruled under public pressure that the girl had the right to an abortion if her life was at risk, including at risk by suicide.
In the wake of the X case, the government held a referendum on three questions: whether suicide should be removed as grounds for abortion, whether Irish people had a right to travel for abortion care, and whether information about abortion should be available in Ireland. The Irish voted to keep suicide as a legitimate reason that abortion be permitted, and voted for the right to travel and information. Meehan recalled a woman whom he’d sparred with over the Eighth Amendment coming up to him in public to apologize, saying her point of view had changed.
Yet government officials failed to act. “They knew then, actually, that the cat was out of the bag, but it has taken from 1992 up to 2018 for them to finally respond to the change in the popular tide,” Meehan said.
The tide turned perhaps for good in 2012, with the death of Savita Halappanavar, who began to miscarry and went to the hospital, where she became seriously ill with sepsis. Because the fetus still had a heartbeat, her pleas for a termination were refused. Halappanavar died after days in agony. A report by the Health Service Executive found later that there had been “an overemphasis by hospital staff on the welfare of Ms. Halappanavar’s unviable [fetus] and an underemphasis on her deteriorating health.” The law by then allowed for terminations to save the life of the pregnant person, but Halappanavar was told “this is a Catholic country.” Her face dots repeal posters all across Dublin, and her parents have made a video urging a yes vote.
There are stories of the effects of the Eighth Amendment even on those who neither want nor need abortion services. In 2016, a woman known at the time as Mother B, was pregnant with her fourth child. She wanted to deliver her child vaginally and was shocked when the Health Service Executive (HSE) applied to the High Court to force her to have a cesarean section. The orders sought by HSE, according to lawyer Wendy Lyon, included, “Using such reasonable and proportionate force and/or restraint to the extent to which it may reasonably be necessary and in the best interests of the defendant and/or her baby, to be conducted by appropriate personnel trained in therapeutic management of aggression and violence.” They sought permission to keep Mother B from leaving the hospital, and to enlist police to arrest her if she did. The fetus was given its own attorney.
Mother B, who later told her story to reporters, won her case, but said, “it didn’t feel like a victory …. I was angry that I’d been put through such an ordeal.” She later appeared in a pro-repeal video made by Midwives for Choice.
As the vote nears, canvassers fanning out across Ireland have called on the memories of stories like these, and their own stories in some cases, and have been in every community, canvassing native Irish speakers in their own language. “Repeal” sweatshirts are the trendy fashion item in Dublin, and repeal canvassers are everywhere.
“I guess in Ireland we have seen the hard-cold face of what criminalizing abortion means,” Ryan said. “I think maybe it is something that it is a very considered decision by the Irish people and as a result, if it passes, hopefully we won’t have the same level of backlash.”