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On the Ground in Ireland: Fighting to Repeal Abortion Ban

Sarah Jaffe

Ireland's abortion ban "was a disaster for women’s rights, it was a disaster for the education of Irish children, but it really infected every aspect of Irish society and we are still undoing the legacy of this.”

In 1983, when Irish people voted in the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, the county of Donegal had some of the highest vote totals for the near-total abortion ban via fetal “personhood.” More than 80 percent of voters in the rural northwest of Ireland voted for the amendment. It was therefore a surprise to see it dotted with bright pink “yes” signs reading “Our Bodies, Our Choice” Monday and Tuesday before the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

The pink signs that I saw most often are from People Before Profit, a socialist party that organizes and holds elected office in the Republic of Ireland as well as in Northern Ireland, and I accompanied its canvassers into Donegal to see about the state of things in this conservative part of Ireland.

On Monday evening, I met Kathleen as she canvassed in Newtowncunningham. (Rewire.News is not using many last names in this story for privacy reasons.) From a nearby town, she’d had bad experiences canvassing her neighborhood, where people called her out by name for her support of the “yes” campaign. This was especially painful, she explained, because she had personal experience with the hardship of accessing abortion care in Ireland. Years before, she had found out 23 weeks into a pregnancy that her fetus had hydrocephalus and was unlikely to survive. The doctors told her, “You can deliver at 35 weeks,” she said, but “it would have meant that I would have had to be pregnant for another four months and I wasn’t prepared to do it. It wasn’t a difficult decision. It was agonizing and it was heartbreaking and it was horrific, but there was no doubt for us. It was the right decision and we have never regretted it.”

Doctors were afraid to even give her access to information about how to go to England for abortion care, she said. They’d suspected the anomaly at an earlier scan but didn’t tell her—leaving her with a limited window to legally get the procedure. The hospital she’d tried to go to was booked, leaving her to find a clinic. Her parents—including her father, who she says would have been a “no” voter before her experience—were supportive, but until she began canvassing for repeal, no one besides her husband and her parents knew.

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“I didn’t know if I could do this, going round the doors, and I was quite tearful at times, but I was only tearful when people were saying, ‘yes,’” she said. “That made me really emotional. I had had a few ‘noes’ and this guy just said, ‘Oh, we are definite yeses in this house and I have registered to vote.’ I walked away with tears coming down my face because I thought, ‘That man understands. He knows that if I made that decision, why I made it, and he supports it.’ Yet, I have other people in my own community that would think that we are murderers and we are horrific.”

Personal experience, or the experience of a friend or family member, has been important everywhere. “You should never prejudge things,” said John Meehan, who recalled a well-kept house with framed photos of the pope and the grandmotherly woman who lived there. “I said to myself, ‘OK, I am not going to get anywhere here.’ She said, ‘I want to talk to you about this.’ She then explained to me, ‘It is not about what I think about abortion. It is whatever my daughter or her friends think.’”

It turned out that this woman, too, had a family member with a crisis pregnancy.

In Dublin, said City Councillor Éilis Ryan, “There is no clear demographic that is in favor or opposed. You have a lot of older men and women in their 70s and 80s who may well have voted for this amendment in 1983, but they have just come to a different opinion about the country at this point. They believe that the church has not played a positive role in women’s lives and a lot of older women looking back on the number of kids they had and thinking they would have like to have been able to make more choices about when they had children and stuff like that.”

Much of Donegal, outside of the town of Letterkenny, where I followed leafleters on Tuesday, would have been no-go for pro-choice canvassers in 1983, the canvassers told me. And they did meet plenty of “no” voters, as well as some undecideds and some committed “yes” voters. One man asked if the canvasser had seen the white crosses put up on the road from Letterkenny to Bridgend by “no” supporters, designed to represent the 17,000 abortions they argue will happen if repeal passes. “The hypocrisy,” he sniffed.

Even some of the “no” voters had been swayed to some degree by the rhetoric of choice. One young woman, her small child by her side, told us that she thought everyone should have a choice, but mentioned “going to England” as the best way to exercise that choice. She also called for more support for parents with children, an argument the canvasser wholeheartedly agreed with. The England option has been a safety valve of sorts for Ireland’s laws, allowing people to feel as though no one will really be trapped in an impossible situation, while allowing them to feel as though abortion care is appropriately difficult to get, that women will not just be having sex willy-nilly and relying on abortion as a backstop. It is, in other words, an easy way to put a control on women’s sexual behavior, while tacitly acceding that certain people shouldn’t be forced to carry a pregnancy.

The “no” campaign has played on this with the rows of white crosses, the glaring signs that toss around that 17,000 number, the signs that argue that one in five fetuses is aborted in England or that 97 percent of English abortions happen to “healthy babies.” There is some sympathy for stories like Kathleen’s, but many of the “no” voters seem to think that her solution was acceptable. Still, as another voter—who called herself undecided—pointed out, “Not everyone can go to England if they don’t have friends or family there.”

Still, as the referendum approached, the canvassers agreed that it was a vast improvement. When they first began, they got a lot of confusion, as if people hadn’t even conceived of the issue as one to be voted on. “Because it’s a referendum,” said canvasser Becca Bor of People Before Profit, “the whole country is having to talk about the issue.” But as the day approached, the “no” campaign has become more hostile.

In Letterkenny on Tuesday, one woman who thrust a repeal pamphlet back in a canvasser’s face then came out to stalk around the neighborhood, staring down the canvassers. Another called them “disgraceful.” Laura, a mother, told me that an elderly couple had canvassed her house and shouted at her when she said she was voting “yes,” calling her a baby killer. Yet another woman approached her and walked away with a handful of Repeal pamphlets.

Driving away from the neighborhood in Letterkenny, we turned down De Valera Road, named for Éamon de Valera, the head of the early Irish state and founder of the Fianna Fáil party, which still has perhaps the most fraught relationship with the repeal referendum.“Obviously the Catholic Church was given a special place by de Valera in Ireland, it was essentially allowed to write the constitution,” said Shaun Harkin of People Before Profit. “This was a disaster for women’s rights, it was a disaster for the education of Irish children, but it really infected every aspect of Irish society and we are still undoing the legacy of this.”

Where most of the major political parties are backing the referendum—including the leadership of the conservative Fine Gael (which heads the current government) and Fianna Fáil parties, though there are no signs that bear either of those parties’ names—it falls to People Before Profit and the other small left parties, like the Workers’ Party, to make a fully pro-choice argument. Sinn Féin and Labour both have their own repeal posters. Much of the campaign has been careful to emphasize the hard cases, the stories like Kathleen’s, but Des Derwin, a veteran of previous abortion referenda, said, “There are two sides to the campaign. There is the respectable middle ground and then, there are the feminists on the left who will be out there every night canvassing and doing all the work.”

It’s a story that sounds familiar in the United States, where the pro-choice movement worries about its messaging to the middle while its feminist base is doing the grinding work of pushing back against bill after bill restricting abortion access and doing the daily work of escorting patients through antichoice protesters at clinics.

The “no” campaign gave me an unwitting reminder of that clinic defense at their tables set up outside of the General Post Office in the center of Dublin—the site of the crucial battle of the Easter Rising and still somewhat of a sacred space for those who would claim the history of Ireland’s fight for freedom. The “no” campaigners wore pink vests with “Love Both” on them, the O’s in love and both stylized into an 8—symbolizing the Eighth Amendment. The vests, I learned, were common for campaigners and protesters to wear on all sides of an issue, but nevertheless reminded me of the next step if Ireland does vote to repeal on Friday—the contested space of clinics.

Regardless, after this campaign, Ryan said, one priority will be to keep the canvassers mobilized. “Most of the canvasses we run, you would have 40 or 50 people and they were like 80 percent women under 35. All of these women are politically active for the first time; how do we channel that into other issues like housing and secularism where we really need a body of young women to fight for what is right?”

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