An uprising of activists in every city, town and village across Ireland made history yesterday and sealed the end of an era that saw women denied basic human rights. The victory of the Repeal the Eighth campaign will ring out across the world to everyone who is fighting to win the right to safe and legal abortions, whether in Poland, Bolivia or even on the doorstep, in my own birthplace, Northern Ireland.
The grassroots campaign saw great teams of people knocking on doors night after night and taking stalls to local high streets all over the country. It was inspiring to witness thousands of people going out to talk to people face to face about why they should vote Yes.
Thousands came #HometoVote from all over the world, and numerous Twitter streams and new hashtags showed the reach and creativity of the movement. Dentists for Yes campaigned in tribute to Savita Halappanavar who died in 2012 after she was denied an abortion when she suffered a septic miscarriage. She was herself a dentist, and her parents spoke out from India in support of a yes vote. Farmers for Yes tweeted photos of themselves holding Yes signs alongside their livestock and tractors while Grandfathers for Yes defied the clichés that this was simply a generational divide.
But most of all the courage of all those who told their own personal stories, many for the first time, stands as a testament to the cruelty of a state ban of what is an essential part of women’s health care. Moving accounts, for example on In her Shoes Twitter account, recorded the anguish inflicted on women who had to travel to end an unwanted pregnancy, or who needed to end a wanted pregnancy for health reasons. Women spoke out about the past so no one would have to go through what they endured in the future.
The No side showed no humility in the face of this outpouring of moving experiences. In fact the anti abortion lobby rehearsed its well worn propaganda about being ‘pro-women’ and ‘pro-life’. These claims were exposed as being lies as the Yes campaign highlighted the impact that denying access to abortion services in Ireland had on every area of women’s health care.
Women described being denied cancer treatment, or medication for epilepsy, when they became pregnant. One doctor told of woman brought by ambulance to a maternity hospital rather than an A&E after being injured in a car accident because she was pregnant. Her own physical injuries were dealt with only after doctors successfully picked up the foetal heartbeat. In the most tragic cases surviving relatives bore witness to the consequences of the constitution treating a foetus and a pregnant women as equal under the law
So this is a momentous change that has been a long time coming. Many compare yesterday’s referendum to one that led Ireland to be the first country to legalise equal marriage after a poplar vote in a referendum. But although both show how attitudes to the Catholic Church’s orthodoxies are changing, today’s result is even more significant. Women’s lives, their bodies, their fertility and sexuality have always faced the greatest scrutiny by the church and the establishment.
Abortion cannot be seen in isolation, rather as part of a regime of oppression that imposed severe restrictions on women’s lives, and on their sex lives in particular. This is a system that saw women who did give birth, but who happened to be unmarried, forced into institutions, such as Mother and Baby homes and Magdalene laundries. Here their babies were forcibly taken from them to be adopted. Many babies were even sold, often to rich American couples, leaving a trail of personal devastation over generations.
The discovery, in 2017, of a mass grave of babies and children in the grounds of a former Bon Secours Mother and Baby home in Tuam, County Galway show that the full truth of these institutions has yet to come out.
This policing of women’s bodies meant that some women were shamed if they did give birth, but others were also shamed if they decided they did not want to continue a pregnancy. Yet, as so many Yes campaigners pointed out, keeping abortion illegal did not stop Irish women having abortions, it just stopped them having abortions in Ireland.
Yet the shame associated with abortion is not unique to Ireland. Abortion still carries a stigma in countries with access to legal abortion, such as Britain. Abortion is portrayed as the ultimate betrayal of what it is to be a woman, we are encouraged to see it as an aberration and a rejection of our natural biological selves. When anti abortion campaigners can’t win a bar on abortion they concentrate on maintaining these taboos.
Such stigma will not disappear overnight, but the impact of what has happened in Ireland cannot be overstated. It is a sea change that will not only affect the legal status of abortion. The result is both an expression of, and spur for, a transformation of social attitudes to abortion as well. This will be the backdrop for the debates still to come over what new abortion legislation will say, and then about how that is interpreted and implemented.
But there is also other unfinished business that is thrust into the spotlight by the referendum result, and that is the ban on abortion rights in Northern Ireland. The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, last year least 700 women traveled to England for health care they should be able to access at home. Others risk prison sentences by buying abortion pills online. One woman, 19 years old when she bought online pills when she couldn’t afford to travel to England, received a three month suspended sentence in 2016.
Theresa May was forced to concede that women from Northern Ireland should have access to NHS funded abortions in England in 2017. Until then women from Northern Ireland, paying the same National Insurance and taxes as women in the rest of the UK, not only had to travel for abortion care, they also had to pay for it privately. The issue threatened May’s ability to form a government after a snap election in June left her without a Tory majority. Her subsequent deal with the DUP, a Northern Ireland party trenchantly opposed to abortion rights, led Labour MP Stella Creasy to put a widely-supported amendment that could have defeated May’s critical Queens Speech.
In a single afternoon 50 years of discriminatory practice was overturned. This was not a sudden change of heart by the Tory government wanting to put right half a century of injustice. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had only two weeks earlier fought a case in the Supreme Court to defend the right to deny NHS funded abortions to women from Northern Ireland.
This was a reform pushed through by a government to ensure its own survival, but it showed what was possible. It has made a real difference for hundreds of women. But they still have to travel, and many cannot take the trip even if it is funded, for many different reasons from ill health to child care or the fact they are living in an abusive relationship.
That’s why today while we are celebrating this tremendous referendum victory, the Abortion Rights campaign in the UK is saying let’s take this opportunity to demand reproductive rights for women in Northern Ireland too. It’s about time.
Judith Orr is the author of Abortion Wars, the fight for reproductive rights, published by Policy Press and is on the executive committee of Abortion Rights.