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US Abortion Rights Activists Can Draw Inspiration From Ireland

Some U.S. activists are using the Irish tactic of discussing well-being, not rights, to form a broader coalition.

Activists in favor of overturning the Irish abortion ban canvass in front of the main entrance to Trinity College in Dublin's City Center on May 16, 2018.

A year ago, I stood in the street in Dublin with friends, awaiting the first exit polls of the Irish abortion referendum. The tension of the past weeks was peaking as we approached the final hours of the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution and overturn the ban on abortion. Many of the activists and campaigners I had met over the previous days hoped to edge by with a narrow margin. As the sunny day came to a close and the first polls trickled out, we looked at our phones in disbelief.

The first polls showed a shock victory for Together for Yes, with 66 percent of voters in favor of repealing the amendment — coincidentally the same margin by which the amendment was adopted in 1983. It was a larger majority than in Ireland’s major referendums on divorce in 1995 (50 percent) and gay marriage in 2015 (62 percent). Most significantly, the vote drew a broad base of support across demographic divisions.

The next day, what we thought would be a nerve-wracking day spent counting ballots to the last vote instead turned to a jubilant celebration in the courtyard at Dublin Castle. While cheering on the campaigners and politicians who ushered through the referendum with the rest of the crowd, I thought about the U.S. with unease. Though right-wing groups and Republicans have steadily chipped away at reproductive health care for decades, they found a new champion with Donald Trump, who had called for women to be punished for abortion during his campaign. With his administration already targeting transgender protections, I couldn’t believe I had witnessed Ireland cast off the last shackles of its repressive Catholic regime only to watch the war on reproductive rights gear up in earnest in the U.S.

The Historical Context of Ireland’s Abortion Rights Struggle

The contests over abortion rights in Ireland and the U.S. are two very different battles. Irish activists have been pushing to establish the right to abortion while here in the U.S., we are fighting to protect and defend existing rights. Though there had been a prohibition on abortion in Ireland since 1861, the progressive wave of legalizations in parts of the U.K., France and the United States led conservative forces in Ireland to push for a stronger and more explicit anti-abortion amendment to the constitution. Proponents of the amendment in 1983 were also hoping to sink the gains of Irish feminists, whose activism had helped to legalize contraception in 1980.

The entire 1983 amendment was rooted in fear, based on myths about a procedure few understood. Lawyers and activists at the time warned of the confusion stemming from the ambiguous wording of the amendment, which gave fetuses (described as “the unborn”) rights equal to those of the mother. The concept of the “unborn” was nebulous and legally undetermined, and doctors were effectively prevented from intervening in the interest of the pregnant person for fear of harming the fetus. The Eighth Amendment “represented an absolute bar to any lifting of the prohibition on abortion – even in cases of rape, risk to women’s health or fatal fetal abnormality.”

Over the next three decades, the severe criminalization of abortion and tight controls of information reduced reproductive health care to horror stories. A growing body of legal cases narrated the struggle to administer those rare cases of abortion that took place in Ireland. Meanwhile, the state continued to battle pregnancy counseling centers and student unions that tried to supply information to people in Ireland about abortion services abroad.

In 1992, a legal case concerning a 14-year-old girl, whose parents sought an abortion to end a pregnancy after she was raped, placed abortion back on the public agenda. In a referendum that year, Ireland voted to legalize travel abroad for abortion and allow the provision of information about overseas abortion services. With the issue of abortion effectively consigned to “over there” and activist lawyers turning their attention to international courts, the battle on the home front quieted down.

In 2012 things began to change. Parents with Terminations For Medical Reasons (TFMR Ireland) began to speak out about their journeys to end pregnancies with fatal fetal abnormalities. Then, at the end of 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian woman living in Ireland, died of septicemia after being denied an abortion during a miscarriage. The conservative attitudes of staff, revealed during the subsequent inquest, compounded the already existent sense of injustice. The resulting outrage and protests lay the foundation for the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Reflections From Irish Feminist Ailbhe Smyth

On the first anniversary of the referendum, I spoke with Ailbhe Smyth, the venerable feminist activist and academic who was one of three chairs of the Together for Yes campaign. Along with co-chairs Grainne Griffin and Orla O’Connor, Smyth was named one of Time’s most influential people of 2019. Though she noted clear differences between the abortion regimes in each country, she offered some notes about the key to the campaign’s success that U.S. activists can take away.

Much of the campaign focused on overcoming silence to convey the reality of living under the Eighth Amendment. “We kept away from our opponents, from the antiabortion terrain,” Smyth told Truthout. While rebutting arguments when necessary, the campaign focused on the people it needed to persuade, she explained. In doing so, the campaign shifted the language of the abortion debate “from morality over to need, and from an emphasis on human rights to an emphasis on health and well-being,” said Smyth.

The 2018 campaign’s emphasis on personal stories was a vast change from the 1983 campaign to stop the Eighth Amendment, which was “an almost purely theoretical debate,” Smyth wrote on the Together For Yes website last year. “Women couldn’t speak up, and I don’t recall hearing any real-life stories discussed in public.”

However, in last year’s campaign, women’s voices and stories became decisive factors. “What really convinced our voters were the stories that women told about their own experiences,” Smyth told Truthout. The campaign embraced a message of compassion and non-judgment, with slogans like, “A woman you love may need your Yes.” Meanwhile, people started sharing their abortion stories on the online platform In Her Shoes, which began independently of the campaign.

“As soon as you stopped saying ‘choice’ and started saying ‘decision,’ the tone of conversation would change,” Smyth told Truthout. There was some resistance within the broader peer movement about moving away from a rights-based framework and the language of choice that has grounded movements for reproductive health and justice. However, an enormous amount of time and energy was spent building bridges across some of the traditional dividing lines to form strong coalitions and work together for a common goal, which was precise and achievable: repealing the Eighth. This, she said, was key to the campaign’s success.

The evidence of hardship suffered by people under the Eighth Amendment forced abortion opponents to consider the issue in a different light. Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney wrote in an op-ed last year that, despite his concerns, he still recognized the need for “a law based in reality that recognizes that thousands of Irish women have abortions every year, at home with drugs purchased online or abroad without support.”

It seems unlikely that fact and reason would ever appeal to the legislators in the U.S. who are using junk science to take away reproductive rights. In the face of such a situation, Smyth urges campaigners in the U.S. to stay consistent in their message and tone. “When everything is seen as being fake and untrustworthy and unreliable, you have to establish yourself in your state as the people who are reliable, the people who tell the truth,” she told Truthout. “Particularly when social media is so predominant, you need a lot of discipline,” she added.

Smyth also emphasized the importance of building coalitions that unite all those working to defend abortion, though various groups may use different terminology or framings in their advocacy. “In the U.S. at the moment … all the progressive and left-wing forces really need to find ways of … aiming for as much solidarity as absolutely possible because all our left politics, whether it’s in Europe or in North America, tends to be incredibly fragmented,” she said. “And when you’re fighting on abortion, fragmentation is the death of the issue.”

Activists in the U.S. have already incorporated many aspects of the Irish campaign that Smyth discussed. People in the U.S. have been sharing their stories across social media using the #myabortionstory hashtag. Activists have held protests across the country. Groups that have been on the front lines for years, particularly in the South and Midwest, are already leading the way.

Encouragingly, multiple states are passing measures protecting abortion rights. This includes Nevada’s Trust Nevada Women Act, which lifted existing restrictions on abortion, and the name of which echoes the feminist tenet for women to be heard and believed. These state laws are a crucial first step to creating a more robust and holistic framework of reproductive justice, destigmatizing the procedure of abortion, and establishing a proactive regime of rights that is articulated through reproductive health care needs.

However, U.S. activists are up against a difficult task, as the efforts of an emboldened right wing are not just targeting Roe v Wade. Smyth pointed to the right wing’s attacks on political institutions as a whole, and noted that the attack on abortion rights is part of a broader attack on democracy, and that the fight is not just for pro-choice groups. “It is a whole politics, it’s a whole set of values that is targeted through abortion,” she explained.

With the harm and consequences of oppressive abortion regimes already known and deeply felt, the fight is daunting and the stakes are high. But activists like Smyth have shown that these forces can be battled and defeated. Though the contexts of Ireland and the U.S. have many differences, activists in the two countries have much to share in their fight for reproductive rights.

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