As groups of excited young women descended on Dublin airport, proudly displaying their “Repeal the Eighth” tops, on the eve of last week’s referendum, it was already clear Ireland had changed irrevocably and for the better. Gone was the shame that 34 years ago led 15-year-old Ann Lovett to die in childbirth at a religious grotto in County Longford. Gone was the fear of the Church that turned abortion into such a fierce taboo few women dared talk about it (though plenty travelled to Scotland, England and Wales for terminations).
In its place was a new self-confidence and a refusal to accept that control over women’s bodies should be ceded to the state. That this self-confidence should be expressed in a reversal of the lonely journey to abortion clinics around 200,000 women have made since the Irish government introduced the amendment in 1983 was particularly poignant.
It was never going to be a clean fight; those who declare themselves Pro-Life, but care little for those with unwanted pregnancies, resorted to their usual base tactics. Images of foetuses dead and alive abounded. Even at their most emotionally manipulative, however, they were no match for Together for Yes. When No campaigners put up thousands of white crosses all the way from Donegal to Derry, their opponents inked on the names of Sheila Hodgers, Bimbo Onanuga and Savita Halappanavar, all of whom paid the ultimate price for the country’s obsession with the contents of a woman’s uterus.
The voices of old-timers like former Taoiseach John Bruton – strident in their moral certainty – were drowned out by long-suppressed stories that captured the complex realities of women’s lives: the impossible situations they’d had to confront and the miles they had been forced to clock up because politicians of all hues didn’t trust them to make decisions about their reproductive destinies.
The ghosts of the dead women (and sometimes their babies) were present on Friday night as the exit polls heralded a victory not on the slimmest of margins, as previously forecast, but by a landslide that will surely make the passage of a new Abortion Bill inevitable.
Anyone trying to get a handle on the scale of this achievement need only reflect that Catholicism’s vice-like grip meant contraception was outlawed until 1980 and that, in 1995, a referendum on legalising of divorce was won by just 9,000 votes. In 1981, less than half the population believed abortion was acceptable even if a woman’s life was at risk; and, as recently as 2012, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was telling Time magazine that amending the law on abortion was not a priority for the government.
What happened to Savita Halappanavar later that year changed everything, of course. Her death from sepsis after doctors refused to abort the foetus she was in the process of miscarrying (but whose faltering heartbeat could still be detected) led to a new Act, which finally sanctioned abortion if a woman’s life was at risk through pregnancy complications or suicide. But it also fuelled a hunger for greater change and wrought a shift in public and political opinion.
That shift became obvious when the Irish Citizens’ Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a referendum. It was nonetheless astonishing that a largely grass-roots feminist movement last week saw off not only dinosaurs like Bruton, but sophisticated social media campaigns by the American alt-right. So successful was the Repeal the Eighth campaign that, in the end, the Yes vote crossed geographical, gender and age divides with only a majority of over-65s backing the status quo.
It doesn’t seem too much of an exaggeration to say that – more even than the legalisation of same-sex marriage – yesterday’s result marked the moment the country of Magdalene Laundries, enforced symphysiotomies and industrialised child abuse shed its ignominious past and grew up. At last simplistic notions of good and evil, of states of sin versus states of grace were swapped for a mature grappling with the dilemmas inherent in a flawed world. At the same time, many of those still uneasy about abortion appeared finally to acknowledge that banning it has never prevented it, merely driven it underground or outsourced it to other jurisdictions.
The repeal of the Eighth paves the way for new legislation which is expected to sanction unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks and abortion up to 24 weeks in certain circumstances, such as foetal abnormalities or serious risk to life and/or the mental health of the mother.
Such a change will allow most of the women who currently travel abroad to end their pregnancies in Ireland. It will put paid to the class divide where access to a termination depends on financial resources. There will be no more need to order drugs off the internet; no more underage rape victims forced to cross the Irish Sea; no more sitting alone in sterile clinics hundreds of miles from the comfort of loved ones.
So much progress; yet not for everyone. While the Irish Republic takes the first steps towards a more enlightened policy on abortion, Ulster lags behind. In Northern Ireland abortion remains illegal except where there is a serious risk to the life or mental health of the woman. Last year, only 13 terminations were (officially) carried out there, but up to 1,000 women are thought to have travelled to other parts of the UK which have started to offer abortions free to women from the Province.
The referendum result will have given Northern Irish campaigners hope; it has reopened the debate and made their voices more difficult to ignore.
Last night, after the exit polls were announced, it felt like the tide had changed. The generation of girls about to become sexually active owe a debt of gratitude to the sisters who led the campaign, the older men and women who followed their lead and the diaspora who begged and borrowed and made sure they got home in time to cast their vote.
Most of all, however, they owe a debt of gratitude to Halappanavar, whose death (along with her baby’s) became a catalyst for change. As people flocked to the polls last week, a mural of her smiling face was erected in Dublin. The wall beside it was plastered in Yes leaflets, the pavement below strewn with flowers. The way Halappanavar was treated was unconscionable, but what a legacy she has left for others. The chain of events set in motion by her passing means no woman in Ireland should ever suffer that fate again.