[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter decades of fighting for the repeal of the harmful Eighth Amendment from the Irish Constitution, healthcare providers, activists and civil society organisations are overjoyed at the landslide victory of the Yes campaign in the referendum on May 25, 2018.
The Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983, with the effect of constitutionally guaranteeing that even where a pregnancy placed a woman’s health at serious risk, in cases of rape or incest, or of fatal fetal abnormality, abortion would be illegal. It has forced hundreds of thousands of women and girls to leave Ireland to access care, to undergo illegal abortions or to move through a full pregnancy against their will.
The resounding 66.4% vote for repeal makes clear that a seismic change in public opinion on abortion has taken place in Ireland. Young and old, female and male, urban and rural — Irish people have decided overwhelmingly that compassion and care must be the values governing women’s reproductive health and rights.
Grip of the Roman Catholic Church
The road to repeal has been a long one however. Colonised for centuries by the British, when Ireland gained independence in 1921, the Roman Catholic church asserted its grip on the state, and for Irish people, so long dominated by a foreign power, to be Irish was to be devoutly Catholic. As countries all around began to open up to the reality of women’s need for abortion care in the 1970s and 80s, regressive forces began to fear that Ireland would go the same way.
And Ireland was also changing. It had entered the European Union in 1973 and prided itself in its outward European approach, in part liking to contrast Irish identity with that of its nearest neighbor and erstwhile ruler, ever a reluctant EU participant. A vocal women’s movement was tirelessly challenging gender inequality. And in 1974 the Supreme Court overturned the blanket ban on contraception.
Fearing that the Supreme Court might follow its US counterpart and rule that abortion was also a right under the Constitution, a campaign began to insert a ban on abortion into the Constitution. The Eighth Amendment — which gave the “unborn” an equal right to life with a pregnant woman — was approved in a referendum by 67% of voters, with the scarce voices in opposition silenced and vilified.
Ireland’s EU membership gradually contributed to economic prosperity, and initial good economic governance in the 1990s led to the start of a boom which was to transform Irish society beyond recognition despite the subsequent bust. Ireland had long exported its educated young people; in the 90s they came flooding back as jobs opened up and the age of digital communication opened up a channel to family and friends for those who did not.
At the same time as the economy boomed and Ireland’s outlook became more global, a series of scandals related to the Catholic church rocked the country. Endemic child sexual abuse by priests came to light, which turned out to have been covered up by the hierarchy for decades. Women who had survived Ireland’s infamous “Magdalene laundries”, homes run by Catholic orders of nuns for women pregnant outside wedlock, began to tell their shocking stories of being forcibly incarcerated and having their babies taken from them against their will. Unmarked graves were found of babies and children who had not survived the harsh regimes of homes for orphans.
Changing attitudes to sexuality
Attitudes to sexuality were changing. Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalised in 1993. In 2011, civil partnership was introduced. In 2015, a referendum was held to change wording in the Constitution that prevented same-sex marriages. Almost two-thirds of the electorate voted in favour. During this campaign, Leo Varadkar came out as Ireland’s first openly gay government Minister. With his election to the position of Taoiseach in 2017, he became the world’s fourth openly gay head of government, as well as Ireland’s first from a mixed ethnic background. Varadkar’s father Ashok, who comes from Mumbai, met his Irish mother Miriam while they both worked at an English hospital in the 1960s. Varadkar is also a medical doctor by training.
But many saw abortion as a much tougher proposition. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, public support for less restrictive abortion regulation was growing. A series of high profile cases had driven home to the Irish people just how devastatingly cruel the Eighth Amendment was. Referendums in 1992 and in 2002 rejected proposals to further restrict access to abortion.
‘Preventable death’ of Savita Halappanavar
Savita Halappanavar | Photo credit: The Irish Times
Opinion polls in the early 2000’s showed growing support for abortion. A 2004 study by the state’s Criris Pregnancy Agency found that 51% stating that women should always have to right to choose an abortion. But successive governments refused to consider reform.
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a case taken by three women, supported by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), who had to travel abroad for abortion services.
The Court ruled unanimously that Ireland’s failure to implement the right to an abortion when a woman’s life is at risk violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The case brought abortion back into the political sphere.
The preventable death in 2012 of Karnataka-born dentist Savita Halappanavar in an Irish hospital brought abortion back into the public domain. Suffering a miscarriage at 17 weeks, she was repeatedly refused life-saving abortion care because doctors were still able to detect a fetal heartbeat. After days of unnecessary suffering, she died of septic shock. According to Professor Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, who chaired the inquiry into Halappanavar’s death, the Eighth Amendment played a major role in it.
The story of Savita (as she is known in Ireland) highlighted the inhumanity of the law and caused Irish people to take to the streets in protest at the harm of the Eighth Amendment to women’s health and lives. Public opinion could no longer be ignored. The case also caused shock waves beyond Ireland’s borders, particularly in India.
India’s ambassador to Ireland said at the time that Savita Halappanaver might not have died if she had been treated in India, while the Times of India wrote: “The ban on abortion therefore ended up taking a life that need not have been lost.”
Seven years later, as voters went to the polls to vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment, her parents bravely made strong statements in favour of Yes. The outpouring of tributes from Irish people to Savita in recent days has underlined that the case was a turning point, moving many people to stand up for the values of respect, care and compassion. Even Professor Arulkumaran returned to Dublin to call for a yes at an IFPA event in the final week of the campaign.
In particular young people, especially women, made their voices heard. Thousands who were eligible to take part in the referendum travelled home from every corner of the earth to cast their vote for a better Ireland.
Towards legalising abortion
With the Eighth amendment now repealed, Leo Varadkar has committed to delivering legislation which legalises abortion care on a woman’s own indication in the first trimester of pregnancy before the end of this year, bringing it in line with the majority of European countries. The Eighth amendment harmed countless women and girls physically, emotionally and psychologically for more than 30 years. Lives will be changed for the better, not just due to the removal of the Eighth, but in the knowledge that Ireland has finally left in the past its long and shameful history of mistreating women.
Beyond Ireland, the Yes vote sends a strong message around the world that when people are informed and understand that women’s lives and health are at stake, they will reject absolutism and coercion and the chauvinist values that underpin them.
We hope that it also gives courage to women and all those who support their fight against reproductive coercion in so many other places, and to all those countries where the Global Gag Rule is having a devastating impact on access to sexual and reproductive health care. Ireland’s rejection of the 8th amendment gives us hope that compassion can win out over coercion, bringing us closer to making abortion care safe, legal and accessible for all women, everywhere.
(Alvaro Bermejo is a SheDecides Champion and the Director General of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Maeve Taylor is the Director of Advocacy and Communications, Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).)