On Friday 25 May 2018, people living in Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remove the 8th Amendment from the Irish Constitution. In a wonderfully fitting reversal of history, 66% voted last week to remove the Amendment – 67% had voted to insert it in 1983.
Women in Ireland have lived under the shadow of the 8th Amendment for 35 years: not only did it constitute an effective ban on abortion for any reason, equating as it did the life of the unborn to the life of the woman, it also embodied decades of state and church shaming and criminalisation of women.
For all of these 35 years, grassroots feminist movements have campaigned for contraception, for abortion, for the right to information about abortion, for the right to travel to other countries to have an abortion while it was still illegal in Ireland. This weekend, the conservative government in Ireland took centre stage in claiming this victory, despite the fact that they voted in a 14 year jail sentence for women who procured or took abortion pills in 2014 and despite the fact that as recently as September 2017 our Taoiseach (prime minister) publicly stated reservations about the introduction of abortion legislation.
It is worth remembering that it was on the shoulders of this grass roots movement that this victory was won. Following Savita Halappanavar’s death in October 2012, tens of thousands of women and men poured into the streets on demonstrations and strikes seeking change – the demand of this revived and exploding movement was Repeal of the 8th Amendment. ‘Repeal’ became a powerful symbol for women’s liberation and the right of women to have choice over their bodily autonomy. Once the Referendum was announced in January 2018, ordinary women all over the country set up local Repeal groups and organised in their communities and workplaces: many of them had never been politically active. Brave women who travelled for abortions or couples who travelled for medical reasons broke the silence by speaking out and telling their horrific stories, the reality of exporting our problem of crisis pregnancies overseas.
This is what defeated the conservative bigots, the might of the church institution, the monied pro-life campaigners (most of their funds came from the US), the Orange Order and the Alt-Right. It was people power. It was people power and that power manifested in a vote that transcended demography, geography, gender and class. What a victory!
What does this victory mean? It means that that the Irish parliament, the Dail, will legislate for new rules on abortion—likely to be up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
At the moment abortion is only available when a woman’s life is at risk. Women still face up to 14 years in prison for trying to get an abortion.
Ireland’s stunning referendum victory will also make it harder to continue to deny Northern Irish women basic rights and represents a beacon of hope for women all over the world, particularly in countries where highly repressive regimes exist and others such as Poland and the US where there have been attempts to roll back on rights gained through grass roots struggle.
This morning however, while we have earned the right to reproductive health care and abortion in Ireland, women still face many barriers to having real bodily autonomy and choice.
We are still homeless, there is still a gender pay gap, there are barriers to health and to childcare, to education, barriers to providing us with real choice. We continue to be under represented in social, economic and cultural life. On the wings of this victory for people power, the fight must begin for quality healthcare where women are able to access abortion services on demand. Activists will need to fight the state tooth and nail for proper investment into women’s hospitals, sexual health clinics and specialised abortion services. We also have to continue the fight for an Ireland that gives women a real right to choose, the right to choose to have a family as well as not to continue a pregnancy.
Tina MacVeigh is a People Before Profit Councillor on Dublin City Council and member of the Socialist Worker Network