28 May 2018

How a feminist campaign united Ireland

Last Friday, in an unprecedented show of unity, every Irish country -- bar one -- voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment banning abortion. We take a look at how a "woman's issue" can -- finally -- become a matter of human rights.  

Elizabeth Walsh
Elizabeth Walsh International Producer, Europe
How a feminist campaign united Ireland - NewsMavens
Repeal Buttons, Twitter

The next time you meet someone who says your rights are “women’s issues,” and that they belong in the dustbin of forgotten causes or are too divisive for your country, tell them about Ireland.

On Friday, 66% of voters voted to repeal one of the strictest abortion laws in the world. With a turnout of 64.1%, it was the third-highest turnout for an Irish referendum, coming second only to the adoption of the Irish constitution in 1937, and the 1972 decision to join the European Economic Community.

This was not a case of urban populations carrying the day: every single constituency in the Republic of Ireland, with the exception of one, voted to repeal the amendment. Even in Roscommon, a conservative county that was the only constituency to vote against same-sex marriage in 2015,  57% of voters voted to repeal the eighth.

The historic vote brought Irish women and men living abroad #hometovote and even grandfathers out onto the streets. Men over 60 campaigning for women under 40?!


You might say that such unity is easier in a country with such a small population, but let’s not forget that well over 70% of Irish citizens identify as Catholic and that one in five voters were undecided just days before they went to the polls. Moreover, only 35 years ago, every Irish county voted for the eighth amendment, with the exception of south Dublin (have a look at this striking map that illustrates the reversal).

Yes, support for the repeal was highest among women, young people and urban voters. But even the majority of men, farmers and rural communities voted yes.

The country stood behind a woman’s right to choose.

The results were so inspiring that on Sunday, Michelle O’Neil, leader of political party Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, called for a referendum on Irish unity, citing Friday’s vote.

Still, even with Friday’s successful repeal, women don’t have access to abortion yet.

Repealing the eighth amendment simply removed the country’s constitutional ban -- lawmakers must now pass a new law.

Though the proposed legislation enjoys broad government support, some significant restrictions are likely to apply.

According to the proposed legislation, women are allowed to seek an abortion within the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy, but will be subjected to a waiting period of three days following an initial doctor’s visit that includes a mandatory discussion of “all options.” Those who are between 12 and 24 weeks pregnant would be allowed an abortion only in the event that their lives were at risk. After 24 weeks --  at which point a fetus can survive outside the womb -- abortion would only be permitted in the event of a fatal fetal abnormality.

The proposed law would also allow doctors to refuse abortion services for moral reasons, with the caveat that they must arrange for women to be transferred to another practitioner. And while the law decriminalizes abortion for women, doctors who perform the procedure outside of the law could face imprisonment of up to 14 years.

Those who have been campaigning for reform are calling for the new law to be called "Savita’s law", in honor of Savita Halappanavar, who died from septic shock in 2012 when she was denied an abortion despite health complications.

It is thanks to a revolutionary campaign that Irish women will no longer face such a horrific fate.

Ireland’s incredible ability to unify around an issue that has divided many other societies is thanks to a feminist campaign years in the making.

Feminists fighting to repeal the ban relied on a wide range of strategies that they carried out by mobilizing civil society and convincing politicians across the board to pick up the torch. They emphasized the safety and dignity of women and, as part of a years-long campaign, they held conventions with politicians to put the issue on the agenda. Their objective was clearly defined and made highly visible both online and on the streets. They sought support from different sectors of Irish society and encouraged courageous women to share their stories with the public, which broke down stigma and replaced fear and shame with empathy.

Their hard-won battle is an inspiration to feminist movements abroad. Those who fought to legalize abortion in Ireland have shown that “women’s issues” are human rights. They have proven that even a matter like abortion need not divide a country and that the fight for the dignity and safety of one group of people is a battle worthy of every citizen.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

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