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After Ireland’s Historic Abortion Vote, Calls Grow for Abortion Rights in Northern Ireland

Activists in Ireland discuss more.

In a resounding win for reproductive rights, the Irish electorate voted in overwhelming numbers to liberalize the country’s highly restrictive abortion laws on Friday. Two-thirds of those who went to the polls voted yes on a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of Ireland’s constitution, which granted equal rights to a woman and an unborn child. But Friday’s vote will not change abortion access in British-ruled Northern Ireland, where 19th century laws barring the procedure remain in place. We go to Dublin, Ireland, where we speak with Grainne Griffin, co-director of the Together for Yes campaign and co-founder of the Abortion Rights Campaign. We also speak with Annie Hoey, the canvassing coordinator for Together for Yes and former Union of Students in Ireland president.


AMY GOODMAN: Wyvern Lingo, “Out of My Hands.” This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. But it was certainly in their hands this weekend, a historic vote on abortion in Ireland. Our guests are Grainne Griffin, who is Together for Yes abortion rights campaigner, Annie Hoey, also with that group and former president of the Union of Students in Ireland, both speaking to us from Dublin, Ireland. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Annie, I wanted to ask you if you could discuss some more the grassroots, door-to-door campaign that you launched. In this digital age, you really decided to go door to door to try to convince the Irish voters, especially in terms of personal stories of women who would be affected by the change in the constitution. Could you talk about that?

ANNIE HOEY: Yes. I mean, one of the huge, big parts of Together for Yes was that — and one of the core tenets of it was that we wanted to ensure that women’s stories, their real-life experiences, were front and center. So, when people were going door to door, and whenever I was doing any kind of canvassing training, I would have always said, “Make sure you have a story to tell. It doesn’t have to be your story. No one has to walk up to a door and tell anyone their personal story. But have a story that maybe resonated with you or is maybe the reason why you’re involved in this campaign, and tell that story.” And that’s not maybe the most traditional way of canvassing, where we start telling stories on the door, but I suppose we’re a nation of storytellers, and I think that’s really important. And we talked about this a couple of months ago, how it was going to be the stories that won this. And when the exit polls came out on Friday, one of the number-one reasons people decided to vote yes is because of the stories. So I think Together for Yes did a really good job of ensuring the women’s voices and their experiences were front and center.

And that was something that was carried out across the country. And we had some canvassing groups that had hundreds of people showing up, and they were almost too big to manage, and then some really amazing scenes out in, you know, some more rural Ireland, where there would be a really small core group of canvassers who just managed to cover everywhere in their town or in their local area and just were so dedicated at getting that message of care and compassion, but really that message of there is someone here, there’s someone on the street, there’s someone you know that has been affected by the Eighth Amendment. And I think that really resonated with people, because for a very long time in Ireland we had not talked about this. And, I mean, 170,000 women have traveled since 1983. Of course everyone knows someone, or there’s been someone in everyone’s family. And I think when we started talking about that, people really tuned into that and went, “Oh, my gosh, I could know someone,” or “I do know someone,” or “Someone in my family has traveled.” And I think that really just ignited in the Irish people the injustice of the Eighth Amendment, that it wasn’t just maybe a one-off person in their family, the way I think maybe we had thought about it over the last couple years, that it had only happened in one family and no one else had experienced it. But, actually, when we put these stories front and center, people realized that this was happening up and down Ireland every day. You know, three women a week, and three couples, get a diagnosis of a fatal fetal anomaly and have to make a decision about whether they’re going to stay and continue with that pregnancy here in Ireland or if they’re going to avail of services over in the UK, maybe in the Liverpool Hospital, where there’s a suite dubbed the “Shamrock Suite” because so many Irish women have to travel over there in order to access healthcare that they can’t get here.

And I think that was what we really tried to do with our canvassing, with our stories, with our interviews, was to make sure, again, that those stories played a key role. And I think, obviously, we saw then on Friday that that really paid off, because people really resonated with the fact that this is — this is something that has hit the core of Irish society, that has affected women, has affected families, and that I think that really made people stand up and go, “Actually, we’re not having this anymore. We care too much about people. We care too much about how we look after people in Ireland.” And I think people were really ready to just take that care home.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of going to England, that’s exactly what women in Northern Ireland have to do. And last year, Democracy Now! traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland. We spoke to Emma Campbell, an abortion rights activist with the Alliance for Choice and a photographer with the X-ile Project, an online gallery highlighting the portraits of an estimated 170,000 women who have had to travel abroad to access abortion outside of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

EMMA CAMPBELL: In 1967, when the UK government introduced the 1967 Abortion Act, which allowed women in England, Scotland and Wales access to an abortion with the sign-off of two doctors, it was never extended to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had its own Parliament at the time. It was a devolved Parliament, and they never introduced the act. Of course, since then, there have been many occasions when Northern Ireland hasn’t had a devolved government and have been directly ruled by UK, Westminster. And in that long period of time, the act was never extended to Northern Ireland. It was never introduced.

And, in fact, on a number of occasions, when there was an attempt to extend it to Northern Ireland, politicians in the DUP, which is the Democratic Unionist Party — but, regardless of the name, they’re not very democratic, but they’re very pro-union with the United Kingdom, and they’re very conservative, with a small c, very religion, and come from a kind of Protestant loyalist background. And they were extremely opposed to any extension of the ’67 act to Northern Ireland and, in fact, did a number of deals with the UK government to vote for some measures, for internment and so forth, with the UK government in order to stop abortion happening in Northern Ireland.

So, we’ve been on this kind of path of struggle for abortion rights since then. There’s been a lot of activism amongst women in Northern Ireland from the ’60s and ’70s, especially the trade unions were amongst the first to adopt pro-choice policies and try and campaign around the idea of getting abortion extended to Northern Ireland.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s photographer Emma Campbell of the X-ile Project. So I asked her to explain what this project is.

EMMA CAMPBELL: The X-ile Project was really envisioned as a way of showing solidarity, a way of removing the stigma and the silence and secrecy around abortion, because obviously that plays a huge part in moving the ideas forward. Women have had to — when they travel over, they quite often pretend they’re going over for a different reason, that they’re visiting family or they’re going on a business trip or — and the X-ile Project wanted to have something that showed that there are lots of women just like you and me who have had to access abortions. And so, these are women who are willing to put their face forward and say, “I’ve had an abortion.” And it’s the first time, really, anything like this has happened in Ireland, north or south. So, it’s been quite amazing, and the response has been overwhelming.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain what you’re doing. You are taking —

EMMA CAMPBELL: So, we photograph women who have had abortions, and we don’t ask them their story or ask them to explain anything. We just take their first name and their face. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Portrait.

EMMA CAMPBELL: Portrait. And we publish. We always publish the portraits as a group rather than as individuals, because it’s about talking about how many women have had to go through this alone before.

AMY GOODMAN: So this is a gallery of women —


AMY GOODMAN: — who have had abortions.

EMMA CAMPBELL: That’s right, yeah. And a lot of them have found — consequently, as a part of doing the X-ile Project, as being one of the faces in the gallery, a lot of them have found their way to being more active in the fight for abortion rights. And certainly, you know, for many of them, the sky didn’t fall in. So it’s been a very empowering project for the women involved.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Emma Campbell of the X-ile Project. We spoke to her in Belfast last year.

BBC is reporting today Labour has challenged British Prime Minister Theresa May to show she really is a feminist by backing reform of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law. The shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, said women in Northern Ireland “have been let down by privileged women and men for too long.” She said the PM was a “self-denying [sic] feminist,” and “the test of feminists is whether they stick up for all women.” So, I wanted to ask Grainne Griffin about the situation of women in Northern Ireland.

GRAINNE GRIFFIN: I think the situation with women in Ireland, in Northern Ireland, as Emma so powerfully put it, has been that the women of the north have been left there very much isolated and very much alone, and without, I think, a great deal of public awareness of what the situation there is. And one of the positive things that I think we’ll see coming out of the referendum here in the south is that our eyes and our minds and our solidarity very much turns now to Northern Ireland, where really there is no excuse now for delay, and there is a need for really clear and comprehensive abortion access to be implemented.

And I think what’s going to be particularly interesting in that is the role that Sinn Féin played in delivering the referendum at the — here, over the last number of weeks. Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, spoke out very clearly on the need for this referendum to pass. And so, with Sinn Féin in the north, there will now be eyes on them to see if they will lead on the same movement building and on the same clear demands in the north of Ireland.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Annie Hoey, what happens here? Because this — they voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, but legislation must still be passed. What are the next steps?

ANNIE HOEY: Well, I think the next steps is to try and get that legislation passed quite quickly, obviously not in such a rushed way that there are any mistakes, but there’s an incredibly clear mandate from the Irish people that they want this to happen. And what we have to remember is that every day that we delay on this, there are nine women traveling to the UK, there are three women at home waiting to see if customs have seized their safe but illegal abortion pills. And I think — with such an resounding mandate last week from the Irish people, I think the pressure is now on the government to step up and to get this legislation through quite quickly, by the end of the year. If there needs to be summer sitting, then so be it. And, you know, there’s been indication from political parties that they’re willing to do that, because they recognize the magnitude of this vote, they recognize the size of the kind of will of the Irish people to get this done. And I think we recognize that we really can’t wait much longer for this.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, can you talk about the role of the abortion pill in this campaign?

ANNIE HOEY: So, I mean, when the abortion pill — I mean, one of our — in the joint Oireachtas committee, our parliamentary committee, that discussed this, and they recognized — they said that — the quote was: “The can of worms had been opened on this,” that people were importing the abortion pill, they were ordering it online, they were getting it through customs, they were getting it over the border. And that was one of the reasons around like the 12 weeks and why they pushed for that, because — and also that that needs to be decriminalized, so that — currently, if you take an abortion pill in Ireland, on Irish soil, it’s a 14-year prison sentence, if you do so. And so far, jail means that that is technically illegal to do so. So it’s incredibly important that while this legislation goes through, that also the abortion pill is decriminalized. It’s on the World Health Organization as one of the necessary medicines. And, you know, we’re just recognizing that people are currently taking it in Ireland in unsafe situations, alone, without medical supervision. And I think it’s really important that that’s dealt with quite quickly, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Annie, your final comment on this? I mean, rather, Grainne, your final comment on this?

GRAINNE GRIFFIN: I think — just, finally, I think we’d like to acknowledge and to thank all of the international support and solidarity that we’ve received over the years, and particularly to organizations like Women Help Women and Women on Web, who, like Annie said, provided the means and the access for women in Ireland to be able to access safe abortion services. I know now our eyes very much turn, and our support and solidarity will turn, to countries all over the world who need the same reproductive rights. And to countries like Argentina and Brazil and El Salvador, we’ll be very much looking to see how we can support and stand with those women as they try and achieve the same type of change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both very much for joining us. Grainne Griffin, co-director of Together for Yes campaign, also the co-founder of the Abortion Rights Campaign. And Annie Hoey, Together for Yes spokesperson and canvassing coordinator, and former president of the Union of Students in Ireland.

Oh, and a small correction: The British shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, called Theresa May a “self-identifying feminist” and said “the test of feminists is whether they stick up for all women.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, what happened to a 19-year-old Guatemalan teenager when she came over the border into the United States? Stay with us.

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