SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 220 July/August 2018

Ireland abortion victory

How the Yes was won

The referendum to scrap the ban on abortion passed easily with 66.4% to 33.6% on a turnout over 64%, the highest for any referendum in Ireland. The result was nearly an exact reversal of the 1983 vote which imposed the ban – except nearly a million more voted this time. As the government said it would legislate for abortion up to twelve weeks on request if Yes won, this was a clear and very strong pro-choice vote. Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) reporters explain how the Yes was won.

Establishment politicians and the media are desperately trying to rewrite the real history of the radical struggle that brought about the stunning Yes victory in Ireland’s abortion referendum. This is because they fear that people will take confidence from it and realise they can organise powerful mass struggles on all the key issues, and against the inherently unequal capitalist system.

Socialist Party member and Solidarity TD (member of parliament, the Dáil) Ruth Coppinger, a key leading force in this struggle, was consciously excluded from the national media during the campaign. This article attempts to put the record straight. The national campaign of ROSA, the socialist feminist movement initiated by the Socialist Party, had a big impact. We were also part of the broad Together4Yes group.

After 35 years, the sentiment to get rid of the 8th Amendment to the constitution was widespread. There was no fundamental contrast between cities and country, as attitudes had also changed in smaller towns and rural areas. Only one constituency voted no – in 1983 they all agreed to the ban, except for one. Even Connaught/Ulster, traditionally the more conservative province, was cut-and-dried at 59% yes.

Most cities were just below or just above 70%. Dublin had nine in the top ten yes constituencies – Wicklow was the other (74.26%) – with the capital’s overall percentage 75.5%. In Stoneybatter, made up of working-class communities and a new younger demographic moving into the area, the vote was reportedly 92% yes. The figures point to a higher vote among the middle class, although during the campaign it was clear that the depth of feeling was strongest in the working class. Working-class women were the beating heart of the revolt.

Sixty-five percent of men and 70% of women who voted, voted yes; 87% of under 25-year-olds, 90% of young women. Young women have been the driving force behind this movement over the last years, particularly in the culmination of the campaign. The number of young women who voted in the referendum compared to the last general election in 2016 increased by a massive 94%. Trans young people and school students were also to the forefront, and Gay Community News estimated that 91% of the LGBTQ community who voted, voted yes. This change has been building over years.

The formal campaign spread over two months, starting in late March when the government signed the order establishing the details of the referendum. The start was signalled with disgusting misogynistic posters from the no campaign, with pictures of foetuses and headlines that screamed: ‘Licence to kill? Vote No’; ‘Don’t Choose Death’; ‘In England One in Five Babies are Aborted’; ‘If Killing an Unborn Baby at Six Months Bothers You, then Vote No’.

However, by 25 May people had decisively rejected the extremely well-funded no campaign – including resources and ads linked to the religious right in the US – in a vote that has sent ripples around the world. Vox, the US news and opinion site, said: "Pro-repeal sentiment was especially strong among young and urban voters, suggesting a new left-leaning and secular majority had supplanted the more conservative Catholic older generations".

Big shifts in society

This result reflected changes that have been ongoing in Ireland over decades. The original 1983 amendment to the constitution was, in a sense, a political stroke involving the clerical right and conservative politicians with the support of the church. They feared that social attitudes were changing in Ireland, so they rushed to get a ban in before it was too late.

Along with the world, Irish society has changed enormously since then, but the political establishment refused to reflect this in the constitution or through legislation. In fact, just five years ago, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act came into law. This included a provision that anyone procuring an abortion could be imprisoned for 14 years!

The existence of the 8th Amendment ban and the domination of politics by the conservative parties – including Labour in the 1990s – meant that many reluctantly felt they had to accept the hypocritical ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’: that, for the foreseeable future, abortion would not be allowed in Ireland on the basis that people could travel to abortion facilities in Britain.

But 1992 saw the ‘X case’, in which a minor who was raped was initially prevented from travelling to Britain for an abortion. Subsequently, the Supreme Court judged that the 8th Amendment allowed abortion where there was a threat to the life of the mother, and she was allowed to travel. Nonetheless, the ban remained fundamentally intact.

That was not the mood or attitude of young women growing up in the noughties, against the backdrop of Celtic Tiger economic growth. There was a growing demand for women’s rights and equality, and for a modern secular state, including bodily autonomy and abortion rights. Since then, young women have been a key dynamic pushing Irish society forward.

A tragic turning point

Then the death of Savita Halappanavar in October 2012 in Galway University Hospital was an extremely important turning point. In huge pain, Savita was found to be miscarrying. She asked for an abortion but this was refused. The ruling in the X case specifically stated that abortion could only be allowed where there was "a real and substantial risk" to the life of a woman.

Apart from basically saying that a woman’s health doesn’t matter, this legal position meant that, in the time taken to decide whether there is a real and substantial risk to life, a condition could become terminal and it could be too late. The X case ruling clearly offered no guarantee to women, and Savita would only have been saved if she had been given an abortion when she had asked for one. There was huge anger at Savita’s death and tens of thousands of young people, particularly women, mobilised to demand change.

At the time, the general position of many longstanding and prominent abortion rights campaigners was to demand that the ruling in the X case should be legislated for, to help formalise and clarify what was permitted within the 8th Amendment. The Socialist Party, particularly through then-councillor Ruth Coppinger, took a different position, saying that immediate repeal of the 8th Amendment was necessary, to be quickly followed by abortion rights legislation. This got a very strong response from the young women mobilised into action by Savita’s death.

In response to Savita’s death and the political crisis it created, the Fine Gael and Labour government brought in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act mentioned above. This was completely inadequate. Notwithstanding this, the mobilisations of young people against the dreadful mistreatment and injustice that Savita suffered changed the dynamic. This was the beginning of the repeal movement that brought home the yes vote on 25 May.

Maximising political pressure

By 2014 it was becoming accepted in the broad movement that the 8th Amendment needed to be repealed. The impetus for this was boosted significantly when Ruth Coppinger won the by-election in Dublin West in May that year, joining Joe Higgins in the Dáil. In October 2014, Paul Murphy won a historic by-election in Dublin South West, and Mick Barry was elected TD for Cork North Central in 2015. Ruth, on behalf of the Anti-Austerity Alliance (the forerunner of Solidarity) and the Socialist Party, put forward bills regarding abortion, repeal and on cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

This created new pressure on the government, whose response was to establish a Citizen’s Assembly – set up in 2016 and made up of 33 political party representatives, 66 citizens and a chairperson – tasked with coming up with proposals regarding abortion. The government hoped that this would support abortion only in very limited circumstances. It would then claim that, as this proposal had come from 100 ‘ordinary people’, it would represent the extent of the change acceptable to society more broadly.

Dramatically, however, and reflecting societal changes, the Citizen’s Assembly came up with a series of pro-choice recommendations, including that there should be abortion on request up to twelve weeks, and for socio-economic reasons up to 22 weeks. These recommendations were to be sent to an Oireachtas (parliamentary) Committee, which would report to the government.

It was going to be a battleground where, as one journalist put it, the job of the committee "is essentially to water down these proposals to the point that they’re not politically toxic". Understanding this, as a member of the committee representing Solidarity and the Socialist Party, Ruth Coppinger focused on maximising pressure for the acceptance of the twelve weeks on request proposal. If the committee could be pressurised into accepting this, that would cater for 92% of crisis pregnancies in the south.

The Oireachtas Committee met last autumn and issued its final report just before Christmas. In a major victory for the relentless pressure emanating from the movement and given particular focus by Ruth Coppinger, the committee backed the Citizen’s Assembly’s twelve-week proposal. In turn, the government said that it would publish the outline of legislation in advance of a referendum to repeal the ban, so there would be no confusion as to what would be implemented in the event of repeal.

Turning point two

The political establishment was in a dilemma. Clearly, the status quo had to change but it was very hesitant. The 8th Amendment kept creating gross injustices and sometimes political crises that threatened governments and the base of the parties. The establishment needed to free itself from this instability. At the same time, it did not want to take the responsibility for implementing abortion rights as it feared undermining its base of support. Therefore, it generally tended towards limited abortion. In the context of shifting social attitudes, however, that would likely create more crises. In the end, abortion pills made the decision for the Oireachtas Committee.

Since 2014, ROSA has engaged in a series of high-profile actions that created awareness of abortion pills, which are illegal in Ireland but entirely safe and can be self-administered. These included an abortion pill train and buses travelling the country. By the time the Oireachtas Committee was deliberating, the latest figures showed that ten people from Ireland were travelling abroad for abortions each day and five were taking abortion pills. This meant that, more so than ever before, abortion was a reality in Ireland, with the likelihood that the use of abortion pills would increase further. ROSA’s actions were essential to the increased usage of abortion pills. 

When presenting the Citizen’s Assembly report, Judge Laffoy singled out abortion pills as a key emerging factor. At the Oireachtas Committee, evidence was presented outlining the increased use of the pills. Among others, consultant obstetrician Peter Boylan stated that, as a result, the "genie is out of the bottle". The committee could have proposed a limited form of abortion – less than twelve weeks – but, with the increasing use of abortion pills, such a law would have been immediately unworkable and outdated. With the pills making abortion up to twelve weeks an established fact, the majority on the Oireachtas Committee felt that they could safely get behind that proposal.

This was a huge breakthrough as it meant the political context for the referendum was a pro-choice policy-in-waiting. If the referendum could be won, Ireland would be pro-choice within months. This was achieved, and it represents a huge transformation compared to a few years ago. It is probably the biggest single blow for women’s rights in the history of the Irish state and has huge implications for the future.

Toxic no campaign

At the start of the formal campaign, the sentiment for repeal was clearly dominant but the no campaign went on the offensive and had an impact. On the one hand, it set the agenda and there was a lot of focus on time limits and abortion ‘on demand’ up to twelve weeks. This created some questions and doubts, and some support for yes was chipped away. On the other hand, so offensive was the no campaign – essentially based on spreading suspicion about women’s intentions and character, in reality branding them murderers – that it kick-started an active response among women.

There was a view that the broad yes campaign should not operate at the level of the no campaign. However, it is necessary to deal with the actual issues that are being discussed. The official Together4Yes Campaign (T4Y) continued with its approach. On the ground, however, activists inside T4Y and in other campaigns went further in answering the no arguments, particularly focusing on the reality of abortion in Ireland and the reasons why people have them.

An exit poll by RTÉ, Ireland’s national TV and radio broadcaster, said that either the stories of women in the media or people’s experience of friends and relatives had been the most important influencing factor for 77% of voters. This shows that the idea of taking a cautious approach in terms of argumentation was mistaken, that the supposed existence of ‘middle Ireland’ was a construct, and that people respond when a strong case is made based on the reality of their lived experiences. This was further illustrated in the poll’s finding that the right to choose was the top factor in a list of options, at 62%, far above fatal foetal abnormality, which was cited by 39%.

There was an important shift in the campaign with less than two weeks to go. The debate on the Claire Byrne Live show on 14 May was watched by 650,000 people. While it was felt that, in the row that erupted, the no side may have grabbed the opportunity better, for many there was shock at the approach and abusive nature of some of the no campaigners. The show received an incredible 1,277 complaints, 92% citing unfairness towards the yes side. This event and the increasingly brutish approach of no campaigners seemed to create a very important counter-momentum.

A few days later, ROSA launched its last batch of posters. One, featuring a large photo of Savita with the simple message, ‘Savita Matters – Women Matter – Vote Yes’, went up in all the main city centres and throughout Dublin. Up until then Savita and her image had been absent from the campaign. These posters acted as a long overdue strike-back. They reminded people generally of the reality of what the 8th Amendment meant.

They also helped to give confidence to others to get active, either in the different campaigns or as individual advocates for yes, right up to polling day. "In the last few days of the referendum campaign on the 8th Amendment dozens of small posters appeared around Dublin. The image was of Savita Halappanavar, instantly recognisable from her thick dark hair, wide smile, smiling eyes, and the Bindi dot on the forehead. The message contained one word: Yes. They were striking in their simplicity and directness". (Harry McGee, Irish Times, 26 May)

The anecdotes of young women arguing and fighting for yes votes with friends and family in the last week of the campaign are now legion. It was clear that an unstoppable momentum was unfolding. The no campaign did raise doubts among some layers but it could not overturn the changed attitudes and consciousness that had been developing over years. At the same time, its antics and abusive and misogynist message created a wave that drowned it on polling day.

ROSA’s huge impact

Socialist Party members were very active, along with others, in ROSA and Solidarity’s campaigns, as well as in Together4Yes. ROSA and Solidarity were active in communities, but were a real feature in city centres in particular. In the Dáil and in their constituencies, Paul Murphy and Mick Barry played leading roles, winning impressive victories in both areas.

ROSA’s campaign started with a brilliant 500-strong national rally in Liberty Hall, Dublin, on 14 April. This was addressed by Socialist Party and CWI speakers from around the world. It included daily actions, as well as sponsored walks to the airports in Cork and Dublin attended by 350. These retraced the steps of the thousands who have been forced abroad for abortions over the last 35 years.

On the day of the count, 250 attended a ROSA rally in the Projects Arts Centre in Dublin, and hundreds of people were signed up to the movement. A high point was the appearance of 15,000 posters of seven different designs put up by ROSA and Solidarity, which had a big impact and stood out for their clear content. So much so that they seemed to feature on nearly all the international news coverage of the referendum.

The working class, women, and young women in particular, have been driving change in Ireland: from water charges to marriage equality and now this historic breakthrough. A generation often disparaged by some as ‘snowflakes’ drove a movement that forced a very reluctant political establishment to act, and which overturned the will of the Catholic Church. It raises the question as to when, not if, they will move on all the other issues and which will put them on a collision course with capitalism itself.

What they said

Here are a few of the many comments that Socialist Party members were sent or which appeared in public forums regarding the activities that we were involved in and Ruth Coppinger’s role in particular.

"Thank you so much ROSA for all your heroic, inspirational, constant efforts and influence".

"I hope you realise how much you have done for the women of Ireland! Please enjoy the weekend and treat yourself to something special! Sorry for the soppiness I’m just so happy, grateful and optimistic for the future".

"Dear Ruth, I must admit, you’ll go down in history as the most vocal, consistent and logical voice of #Repeal… We can probably count on one hand the political issues you and I actually agree on. Repeal was certainly one. As an unwavering passionate advocate for Repeal you’ve done the country, health professionals and women a great service".

"Hi there. I’d just like to commend you on your fantastic poster campaign around Dublin city for the yes vote. It is the most thought-provoking of all the poster campaigns imo. When yes wins next week, they will owe a massive debt of gratitude to you folk".

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