The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland has been a long and divisive one – Lucy Harley-Mckeown looks at what's been happening in the lead up to polling day.
On a drizzly, grey day in Wapping, London, Hannah Little, 28, of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign stands in a yellow mac, hood up, with a megaphone, leading the chant: “Get your rosaries off our ovaries!”
Around a hundred people have turned out to create a campaign video asking those at home in Ireland to vote, and to persuade the Abortion Rights Campaign’s estimated 40,000 Irish abroad that are still eligible to vote to fly home for polling day.
Access to abortion (or lack, thereof) is a long-running political issue in Ireland, with deeply ingrained traditional religious values at the apex of the debate on the anti-repeal side. The Amendment has been in place since 1983, meaning women have no access to legal, medically supervised, abortions unless they are in serious medical danger. The vote on the 25th of May has clearly shown, as Brexit did for the UK, how an issue can divide a country.
What’s more, if you’ve been out of the country for more than 18 months you lose your right to vote in the referendum. These are some of the most restrictive voting laws in Europe and are a sticking point for many when considering whether they want to return or not.
Hannah Little said: “Both sides want a respectful and honest, factual debate.
“It’s just making sure people educate themselves on this issue because it really is a once in a generation opportunity to vote on this. Nobody under the age of 52 has had a say on reproductive rights in Ireland so it’s really important.
“The main thing to remember is this referendum isn’t about introducing abortion to Ireland. It’s already a reality in Ireland at the moment – every single day until this referendum there will be 11 women travelling from Ireland to other countries to access terminations.”
Ciara Larkin, another Irish citizen who has lost her voting eligibility, said: “I think it’s appalling that, at the moment, inequality is written into the constitution. I want to go home and know that I’ve got the same control over my own body as any man. Every time we have this conversation, we’re being told over and over again that we don’t have that and are not entitled to it.”
It’s clear these women have done their homework, and are arguing for the right to abortions on the grounds of bodily autonomy and choice. They want the chance for women to be trusted with decisions that will affect their health and their future.
Cases such as the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 acted as a catalyst for the Repeal campaign. She had requested an abortion after it became clear that her 17-week-old pregnancy would end in miscarriage. She was not diagnosed with a blood infection until it was too late. Her request was denied because the medics taking care of her did not judge her life to be in danger. She died because of cardiac arrest caused by the sepsis. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was passed as a result of her death following much controversy.
Niamh Dolan, another woman that has turned out to support the campaign, tells me: “When I was leaving to emigrate five years ago my sister said ‘we’re going to miss you, but enjoy bodily autonomy’, which I’d never had until that day I stepped off the plane here.”
In Ireland, as in many other places, there is a stark contrast in views from different demographics, with most Repeal campaigns focused on urban areas like Dublin, Cork, and Galway. Some feel big campaigns such as this can miss people in more traditional rural areas, and this may sway the vote.
Beth O’Rafferty, 27, said: “What’s important is getting out to small places, towns and villages all across Ireland, and speaking to people who may not know, or think that they don’t know, someone who’s had an abortion.
“It’s so crucial to have face-to-face conversations with people, to appeal to their empathy, so their only interaction with the Yes and No campaigns isn’t an angry poster or the shouty, extremely heated, debates on the TV and radio. A referendum can be won or lost based on just a few thousand votes.”
Ireland has a history of close referenda, with the 1995 referendum removing the constitutional prohibition of divorce only passing by 0.28%, with a margin of just over 9,000 votes.
The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign have made an effort to reach more rural areas by putting the word out on social media, but it remains to be seen whether this will have the desired impact.
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Tag a friend from Westmeath. There was 38 women who had to travel in 2016 from Westmeath to the UK to get safe abortion care. You can help get a YES vote on May 25th by joining @westmeathforyes and go #HomeToVote if you are eligible. Westmeath people deserve better. #TogetherForYES
The polls show the outcome could still be anyone’s game, too. A poll carried out in March by The Sunday Times in Ireland found that 49% of voters wanted the Eighth amendment repealed, while 27% were against it, 20% were unsure, and 4% of people polled said they wouldn’t vote.
Similarly, polls released by YouGov on 22 March 2016, four months before the Brexit referendum, suggested the vote share for both leave and remain were at 37%, while the crucial ‘don’t knows’ were at 20%. When comparing the two it’s clear that the outcome of the referendum is not a foregone conclusion; every vote will count.
David Higgins, an Irish commentator tweeted:
— David Higgins (@higginsdavidw) April 28, 2018
If these trends are anything to go by the Yes campaign has a big task on its hands.
Another factor feeding into this complex issue is the No campaign’s use of posters. Unlike the UK, political campaigns in Ireland can flyer and put up posters wherever they want. At the moment, there are posters for and against the amendment strewn across Dublin. Some are extremely graphic, biased, and misleading, and the way some are targeted are obviously emotionally manipulative.
Revolution Ireland tweeted this photo:
This clearly places an emotional onus on voters, ignoring women’s personal or medical reasons for having abortions.
There are also posters of a young woman holding a young child, which says the phrase says ‘love them both’. One Dublin resident tells me: “It’s just insulting: implying every woman a) wants that, and b) is able to choose and support a child in her life. There’s another one of a female doctor (with a stethoscope around her neck, so she must be legit) and a quote from her that says: ‘A baby’s heartbeat starts at 10 weeks. don’t make it stop’.”
It is near-on impossible to stop people using these tactics, but it’s clear that for the No campaign the collateral will be women’s bodies.
With two weeks to go, as Hannah Little, and so many other women make the journey home, they’ll be hoping their campaign has been worthwhile.
“I’m just anxious I’m not doing enough,” she says with a tired smile.