On the evening of 25 May 2018, Ireland held its breath.

The national broadcaster, RTÉ, was reporting that 65% of people had voted in favour of legalising access to abortion according to the exit polls.

This was far higher than expected.

Opinion polls had predicted that it would be down to the wire, and that rural communities and older people would vote against legalising abortion.

When the votes were counted, five years ago today, 66.4% of the Irish public voted to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution that conferred equal rights to a foetus and a pregnant woman.

This was a victory for Irish women whose bodies, for decades, had been a battlefield for the Catholic Church to exploit, abuse and control. And a victory for society as the Church was finally losing its grip over Irish politics.

“It’s like an enormous weight being lifted […] It’s almost like society atoning for everything it’s done to women in this country,” said Left MEP Clare Daly in the Irish parliament.

Before the referendum, every year 3,000 Irish women travelled overseas, usually to the UK, to end pregnancies, including those caused by rape or incest. This journey and all it would entail, was often the preserve of the wealthy. Poverty made safe abortion impossible.

Today, Clare Daly is reflecting on what lessons can be learned from the Irish experience. “There were years of struggle behind it,” she says. But the flashpoint was the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. A young woman who died of sepsis at University Hospital Galway after her request for an abortion following a miscarriage was denied. “People said, ‘that’s it, never again’,” says Daly, “It still makes me upset to think about it now. She became an emblem of the struggle in some ways, which is tragic, that any woman would have to lose her life for that.”

The Repeal referendum in Ireland is a rare story of hope when many countries are backsliding on women’s rights. Part of its appeal and success is down to the pro-choice campaign.

The public debate was bitter. Misinformation, mudslinging and graphic images were techniques deployed by many anti-choice activists. Campaigners for Repeal worked tirelessly in the weeks and months preceding the referendum – knocking on doors, calmly explaining the facts and sharing stories. A previously taboo subject became a topic of national conversation.

“In truth, every Irish family had people with abortions, but you just don’t talk about it […]  People shouldn’t feel stigmatised by telling their stories. They became freer and it played an important role for them and in changing society,” says Daly.

Initiatives like In Her Shoes, where people posted their experiences anonymously online, or Home to Vote, which encouraged emigrants to return to vote, or offers of advice on how to speak to family members were all innovative ways of spreading the message and encouraging honest and compassionate conversation.

For Daly, taking the heat out of these conversations was vital.  “I (would) just fully accept their narrative and try and say, ‘but that’s not a reason to keep the ban’. We’re not forcing anybody to abort their child.”

To drive the conversation forward, sometimes moving beyond binaries of pro or anti choice is also necessary, explains Daly. “We saw politicians in Ireland, who would have started off by saying they’re pro-life/anti-abortion. But my position is, well, everybody is anti-abortion. I mean, nobody wants an abortion. It’s not about being pro-abortion. It’s about saying a woman has to have a right to decide what to do with her body.”

Since Repeal, countries such as the US, Hungary, Poland and Italy have all taken steps to restrict the right to abortion. From the Irish experience, organising and solidarity were the forces for change. This includes acts of civil disobedience, i.e. breaking laws that put womens’ lives in danger.

“Women will always find ways and unfair laws have to be broken. There would never be any change unless we do that,” says Daly. “We always say that society changes in spite of politicians, not because of them […] So the social progress has to come from the streets, from the women’s organisations, from the trade unions, from below, to demand justice.”

These excerpts were taken from an interview with Clare Daly as part of our podcast series Look Left which will be available in June.

A recent review of Ireland’s abortion laws found that a number of barriers to accessing abortion still exist. The criminalisation of abortion care after 12 weeks means that a significant number of women are still forced to travel. The review also recommended scrapping the mandatory 3 day waiting period before being able to have abortion and highlighted inconsistent provision of abortion services throughout the country. Find out more here.

Find out more about this issue and sign up to our newsletter on the fight for abortion rights.

Related Meps

Equality & Rights & liberties & Rights and liberties & Social Justice ·

From the streets to the institutions - the unwavering battle for LGBTIQ+ justice

Healthcare and medical products & International solidarity & Vaccine Equality ·

Parliament votes through positive compulsory licensing rules, but global solidarity lacking

Feminism & In the news & Rights & liberties ·

Mon corps, mon choix