Social change used to come slowly in Ireland. Now, it cannot seem to come fast enough. Three years ago this month, the Republic voted in favour of same-sex marriage – and became the first country in the world to do so. A year later, Leo Varadkar, who was a number of firsts rolled into one, became taoiseach. At 38, he was the country’s youngest ever prime minister, the first from an ethnic minority background and the first to have come out as gay. Now, voters are about to go to the polls to have their say on arguably the most bitterly and repeatedly contested issue in modern Ireland: abortion. This is the sixth referendum on the subject in the past 35 years. But while previous votes were about small, esoteric changes to the existing law, this time the Irish people will decide whether to liberalise, once and for all, one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world, or to keep the status quo.
Voters will be asked on 25 May if they want to repeal article 40.3.3 – known as the eighth amendment – which gives unborn foetuses and pregnant women an equal right to life, in effect enshrining a ban on abortion in Ireland’s constitution and making it the sole western democracy to do so. It is only since 2013 that terminations have been allowed in cases where the mother’s life is in danger and currently the penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is up to 14 years in prison.
Many will be hoping that, whatever the outcome, Ireland’s “abortion wars” will be put to rest. Since the eighth amendment was passed in 1983 access to abortion has been a hugely divisive issue, coming, like Brexit, between friends and families. For many it is bound up with painful aspects of Ireland’s past. People care deeply about it.
As the last Friday in May nears, the subject is dominating the national conversation. The main evening radio news programme on RTE 1, Drivetime, has been running a compelling series of interviews with women who have had crisis pregnancies, while TV’s The Week In Politics is to devote two programmes to abortion. The campaign features daily in all newspapers and across social media. Journalists from all over Europe and the Americas are arriving to cover the story.
A month out from the vote, Kerry O’Sullivan, aged 17, is canvassing near her home in Santry – a working-class area of north Dublin – for the first time. Too young to vote in the referendum, she still feels she must campaign for Yes vote. “I want to convince as many people as I can to make the right choice.” It’s a sunny Tuesday evening and she is with Dublin Bay North Together For Yes (the umbrella name for pro-repeal groups), door-knocking in Kilmore.
Asked how she got involved Kerry smiles. “I told my ma if any canvassers came round for ‘repeal’ she was to call me to the door. I was in the shower when two girls came round. I came running downstairs to sign up. There I was, standing almost in the street in a bath-towel. I didn’t care. I have always felt so passionately about the issue.”
She is not the only one canvassing for the first time. Kate Antonisik-Parsons, 39, moved from San Francisco to Ireland as a student when she was 22. She married an Irishman and they have four children – three of them daughters. She can’t vote in the referendum either, not being an Irish citizen. But as someone who has had to travel to the UK for an abortion, and cares “deeply about Ireland”, she knew she would get involved. She contacted the Dublin Bay North group at the end of last year, had a half a day’s training and was on her first canvass in January. “I was so nervous. I was worried that because of my personal stake in this I might cry if someone pushed me. My first night I got paired up with [local Solidarity Party councillor] Michael O’Brien. We knocked on a couple of doors and then Michael said, ‘You know all about this. You’re ready to go alone.’”
At the first door she was invited in. “I thought, ‘Oh, what is this?’ But they were so pro-repeal, so enthusiastic, and we talked about the arguments. I found it lovely.” She finds canvassing emotionally challenging but also a privilege. “Several women have shared their stories about travelling [for an abortion], some of them, I think, for the first time. For me, every time I have those conversations it is de-stigmatising abortion.”
On the other side of the city, in Dublin Bay South – affluent and regarded as the most liberal constituency in Ireland – Christine O’Connor, 45, is canvassing, also for the first time on any issue.
A married mother of four – including three daughters – she felt so strongly about the need to repeal the eighth she had to “get off my arse and do something”. She contacted the Abortion Rights Campaign in January, and then the Dublin Bay South repeal campaign. “I went to meet them in early March. I was really nervous. I got there and told them ‘I’m absolutely terrified’. But now I’m really enjoying being part of it.”
These women are among thousands across the country – mainly women but men too – in what is becoming the largest grassroots movement in decades. Long-time activists on both sides speak of huge numbers of previously non-political people joining this campaign. “I think there were about 17 or 18 people on my first canvass,” says O’Connor. “Now there are easily 60 or 70 a night. It has grown very big, very quickly.” Michael O’Brien, in Dublin Bay North, agrees: “One of the most difficult aspects of political work is usually finding people willing to canvass. They’re nervous; believe they have to be ultra-knowledgeable. I’ve never seen anything like this campaign. People are still nervous, but they are determined to overcome that.”
Though most political parties back repeal, the main government parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are allowing members a free vote. The biggest parties’ campaigning is low-key, and – uniquely in any recent referendum campaign – the government is not publishing campaign literature or putting up posters. The campaign, on both sides, is being driven by civil society.
Both sides would agree it was the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 that put this campaign in motion. Contested though the narrative of her death is, the facts, as I first reported them in the Irish Times, never have been. From Karnataka in south-west India, Halappanavar was completing her dentistry training and living in the west of Ireland when she rushed to Galway University Hospital on Sunday, 21 October 2012, 17 weeks pregnant and experiencing severe back pain. She was miscarrying. A day later, still in immense pain, she asked for a termination but was refused as there was a foetal heartbeat. Under Ireland’s laws, since her life was not in danger, there could be no abortion. She asked again the following day and was again told no. A midwife told Savita: “It’s a Catholic thing.”
A week later, after going into septic shock, suffering multi-organ failure and finally, cardiac arrest, she died. While the anti-abortion lobby scrambled to deny her death had anything to do with abortion, there is no doubt that had her wish been respected, Savita would be alive today. It was said to me, the day after the Irish Times broke the story, that “this will change Ireland”.
There had been myriad crises in Ireland’s abortion wars since the eighth amendment, involving pregnant rape and incest survivors, pregnant girls in care who could not travel, women too sick to travel and women with diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormalities. But none had been identified and none had died. On the day the story broke, about 3,000 people gathered outside Dáil Eireann, the Irish parliament, weeping, carrying candles and pictures of Savita, and holding placards reading “Never again”. Three days later, on Saturday 17 November, 20,000 people marched through Dublin. Never again, they chanted. There were similar gatherings across the country. Young women in their thousands founded and joined such groups as the Abortion Rights Campaign (Arc) and Reproductive Rights, Against Oppression, Sexism & Austerity (Rosa). The campaign to repeal the eighth had begun.
Today, speaking to people around the country, one gets a sense of a nation in reckoning with itself – about what kind of society it has been and what kind of Ireland it wants to be. For many this reckoning is deeply personal, and painful, bound up with the revelations of child sexual abuse by priests, and the abuse of young, poor women in mother and baby homes such as the Magdalene Laundries, which have done untold damage to trust in the Church. With only 78% of Irish people identifying as Catholic in the 2016 census – down from 91% in 1991 – it is clear that unquestioning loyalty to the Church has been replaced for many by a growing ambivalence.
Terry Armstrong, a street trader in Dublin’s Liberties said he was definitely voting Yes. He and his older brother were taken into church institutions in 1954 after their mother had a stroke. “We were in Artane [a Christian Brothers industrial school] at the age of nine,” he says. “It was a hell-hole. We were beaten black and blue. There were boys being raped. There were boys told their mammy and daddy were dead, when they weren’t. That’s horrendous. Abortion could not be worse than what they did to kids who were alive.”
In Co Clare, artist Eilis Murphy, 37, describes one of the first days she ran a Clare for Choice stall in the county capital, Ennis, earlier this year. “I was really anxious about how it would go. In the afternoon an old man, a real farmer-type, came over. I thought, ‘Here we go’, assuming he’d be anti-abortion. But he said: ‘The priest ruined it for me. He started going on about young girls going to England for abortions. It’s none of his business. So I heard you were here and I came down to sign your petition.’”
For me, as for Kate canvassing in Kilmore, and for thousands more, the referendum has a personal dimension. I have had two abortions, one in my 20s in London, about which I had no regrets, and one in my 30s, in Amsterdam, which I regretted hugely. I wrote about them, in passing, in a column for the Irish Times in May 2017, not to “come out” about them, but to acknowledge my privilege in being able to choose them, to underline the way that Irish abortion is not only a woman’s issue, but a class issue too.
In the 35 years since the eighth amendment more than 170,000 Irish women and girls have travelled, the vast majority quietly, secretly and often in deep shame, to Britain for abortions. About 3,000 a year still do. Unlike British women and girls, who in the main can access abortion free on the NHS, Irish women must pay – anywhere between £560 to £1,800, the costs rising as the pregnancy progresses. Add to that the cost of flights and accommodation, and abortion is an option only for those who can afford it, and who can legally leave and return to Ireland. Increasing numbers – about 2,000 per year – are buying abortion pills on the internet, and taking them at home, in secret, without medical supervision. If found out they would face up to 14 years in prison.
From the abortion that I regretted I learned more about the importance of choice. I already had a daughter, Rosie, who was eight, when I became unexpectedly pregnant. I had a secure career, a good relationship and a belief that I didn’t want more children. I was 36. I went for crisis pregnancy counselling, as is mandatory before arriving at clinics in either Britain or the Netherlands. I was more emotional than when I’d had the same counselling a decade earlier. If I didn’t have this baby, would I have another chance? Did I want another? The counsellor, Michelle, told me to take time on my own: “Look at the stars, the skies; think about how enormous this decision is for you and how insignificant it is really for anyone else. Don’t make the wrong decision for you.” I talked to my partner. He didn’t want another child and thought I didn’t either.
It was agony. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t focus on work, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t decide. In the end I travelled, full of doubt, to a clinic in Amsterdam. I was unsure, even when the woman checking me in asked if I was sure. I said I was.
I felt relief travelling home. I could get back to normal now. But within days, all I felt was a gaping, tear-filled sadness. What had I done? I’d cry on my bike on the way to work, in the shower where I couldn’t be heard, driving with my daughter in the back seat so she couldn’t see the tears streaming down my face. I didn’t want to see friends. I couldn’t. I’d have to explain I was heartbroken, that I had broken my own heart and nothing, least of all me, made sense.
In the days after I first wrote about my experience I was invited on RTE’s main Saturday night chat-show, The Late, Late Show. Doing my makeup before going on air was a woman in her late 50s. She asked what I was going to talk about. I told her. “Abortion.”
“Oh,” she said. “Would you be for it?” Half assuming she was anti-abortion, I said gently: “Well, I think if a woman needs it she should be able to.” She stopped with the blusher and said: “That’s good. I had to travel once, to Liverpool.” It was the first of several conversations with older women who, one senses, may be feeling safe for the first time to speak not only about abortion, but about traumatic pregnancies, miscarriages and difficult births – and about what their needs had been, and how they could not be met.
While younger women may be leading a charge for abortion rights older women too are finding their voice after many decades of being silenced. In Bray, about 20 miles south of Dublin, a couple in their 70s gave their views on the referendum.
“Abortion is mass murder,” said the man. His wife, who said they were 48 years married, said: “I don’t see it like that.” She told how they had lost their first baby. “I was very ill. I had severe toxaemia [pre-eclampsia]. I was 32 weeks and trying to hang on to the 34, to save the baby. A doctor said to me: ‘A lot of people want to talk about saving the baby, but I want to talk about saving you.’ So he delivered the baby. He lived a week.
“I never got to see my baby. I was too ill. They took him away and I never saw him. I was just sent home. I got so depressed, and I had no one to talk to about it. No one asked me about it. Only a woman can understand what it is to go through that. I’ll be voting Yes.”
In Ringsend, a working-class area in Dublin, Bernie Galvin, a woman in her 60s told me how she had contracted rubella when pregnant in 1984. “I was covered in German measles and the doctors told me nothing. I was kept totally in the dark about what could happen to the baby. The child was born very sick, and completely deaf. They didn’t even tell me she was deaf. All I wanted was for my child to be better. Everyone has a story.” Asked how she’ll vote, she said: “Yes. Of course.”
There are many parallels between this vote and the marriage equality referendum three years ago, which was approved by 62% on a turnout of 61% after a mainly good humoured campaign during which thousands of Ireland’s gay community found their voice. Surely, given the clear support for that, in the face of Catholic opposition, this vote too will pass easily? Ailbhe Smyth, 72, Irish feminist, lesbian, veteran campaigner and joint co-ordinator of the national Together For Yes campaign says that this referendum is different: “In marriage equality we were asking to be to be part of what the rest of society was doing – and it was about happiness, love, stability, family. This is about access to something we need and, more profoundly, it’s about challenging the control and repression of women.”
The anti-abortion campaign – centred on the Pro-Life Campaign and Save The 8th – has been difficult to penetrate. There has been reluctance by the main spokespeople to be interviewed, and by canvassers to be accompanied by journalists. Perhaps this is indicative of an antipathy towards a “liberal” press, and a sense they have nothing to gain from media exposure. At a Saturday afternoon vigil in Roscommon town, which was made up of about 15 mainly older women and three men, retired nurse Mary Fallon said the campaign was going well. “We have teams out canvassing around the county, just in the towns so far – Roscommon, Castlerea, Ballymoe. We had Katie Ascough [a young anti-abortion campaigner who has been fronting a roadshow since February, promoting estimates of how many lives have been saved by the amendment since 1983] last weekend. You know 900 lives have been saved by the eighth in Roscommon.”
Mary Fallon was very confident Roscommon would vote No, as is John McGuirk, 34, spokesman for the Save The Eighth campaign. He adds Cavan, Monaghan, Mayo, Galway and Kerry, conceding: “Yes will win Dublin. We are happy with how things are going in Dublin, though. If Dublin goes 70% for Yes we’re in trouble. If we can get that down to 60%, this is very winnable.
“The battle will be won and lost in the commuter counties around Dublin which have very mixed rural-urban populations. It’s here that we’ll be concentrating our efforts – Kildare, Meath, Louth, Carlow, Kilkenny.”
Anti-abortion meetings around the country are well attended. There were some 300 at a meeting in Castlebar, Co Mayo on 22 April, at which the referendum was described as a “defining moment for our society”. One elderly woman, at the end of the meeting, told RTE radio: “The people of Ireland who believe in God are praying and we will win. We will win.”
As well as a deeply held conviction that abortion at any point after conception is the killing of a baby, those against the repeal of the eighth are articulating concerns about the vanishing of a cherished Ireland, an Ireland that prizes family, children, the less fortunate; an Ireland built around community, protection of the vulnerable and faith. Abortion, synonymous with individuals’ rights, women’s empowerment, selfishness even, is antithetical to this Ireland. And many remain torn between the two.
A Dublin taxi-driver in his 60s said: “My heart says ‘No’, but my head says ‘Yes’. I know things have to change, but it’s just the way I was brought up. It’s still taking a life.” A solicitor in Bray described the vote as very difficult. “I’d call myself pro-life, but I look at my teenage daughters and I know, if ever something happened to them, if they needed the choice, I’d want them to have it at home.”
Two weeks from the vote, the outcome is far from clear. While several months, even weeks, ago a Yes vote seemed inevitable, polls are narrowing. A survey last weekend, in the Sunday Independent found 45% in favour of repeal, 34% against, 18% undecided and 4% not expressing an opinion. And it is clear that the government’s proposed legislation, to be introduced if the referendum is carried, is causing most unease among the all-important undecideds. It would provide for medical abortion on request up to 12 weeks, the drugs to be prescribed by the woman’s GP.
People are telling canvassers they fear young people – already seen as consuming too much pornography and immersed in a sexualised culture – will see abortion as a form of contraception.
Irish Times columnist Breda O’Brien, who describes herself as a pro-life feminist, believes “core values have not changed as much as some people think”. She says: “There is still a huge unease around this and, I think, an awful lot of people who say they are not decided will quietly vote No. I feel more hopeful than I did two months ago that the pro-life argument will win.”
Among Irish twentysomethings – whether in Dublin, Clare, Roscommon, Louth or Wicklow – the urban-rural divide appears fully bridged. In Roscommon – the only county to vote No to marriage equality – a mother aged 60 was voting No while her daughter, 27, said she would vote Yes. Her mother looked horrified. “But God made you. It’s the fifth commandment.” Her daughter laughed. “Mammy’s very religious.”
Both sides say that if they lose they will continue fighting – whether to push again for another referendum or to ensure that whatever abortion legislation is introduced is as liberal –or restrictive – as possible. As the votes are counted, 26 May will be a hugely emotional day for Ireland. It will be one of huge celebration and shattering disappointment – and is unlikely to herald a permanent peace in Ireland’s abortion wars.
Kitty Holland is social affairs correspondent for the Irish Times. She is one of the contributors to Repeal the 8th, edited by Una Mullaley (Penguin, £9.99). Click here to buy it for £8.49