How Irish Women Campaigned to Win Abortion Rights and Overturn a Constitutional Ban
On Friday, Irish citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of repealing their country’s amendment banning abortion in nearly all circumstances. This article, published on May 21, tells the story of the women who worked to help secure this victory.
A few years ago, in the lead up to the 2016 Irish general election, Andrea Horan found herself surprised when the patrons of her Dublin nail salon had little to say about the upcoming vote that would decide Ireland’s next prime minister. Horan remembers how several of the patrons, the kind of young Dublin women who frequent the Tropical Popical salon, shrugged and said they hadn’t thought about the election much. “However my dad and mum are voting” was the answer that she heard from many of them.
Up until recently, this political indifference was typical among Irish women, and especially so concerning hot-button social issues. Women’s rights seemed to pale in comparison to past decades’ turmoil caused by political conflict with Britain, and the Catholic church’s pressure made issues like reproductive health essentially taboo. However, the movement to legalize abortion has gained considerable support in Ireland, and with polls suggesting that the Irish people will vote to repeal the country’s constitutional ban on abortion, it looks like 2018 could be the Year of the Woman in Ireland as much as it has been in U.S.
The campaign to repeal the constitutional ban started in 2012, when Savita Halappanavar, an Indian immigrant living in Ireland, died because she was not allowed a medically necessary abortion. Some women began to consider whether they could bring about a repeal of the Irish Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which protects the “right to life of the unborn.” Horan and others felt that if they could find a way to to start productive conversations around progressive social causes, women like the ones who frequent Tropical Popical could bring real change to Ireland. “If this group was mobilized,” Horan remembers thinking of her salon patrons in 2016, “they would make women’s issues a bigger item for politicians.”
Overcoming the reticence to confront the almost-total ban on abortion in Ireland has been at the heart of Irish women’s campaigning initiatives, especially with the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment. On Friday, May 25, Irish citizens will have the opportunity to vote on abortion for the first time since 1983. The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment is a “big, seismic shift in Ireland,” says Horan, a leading advocate in the call to legalize abortion. “This is about recognizing women’s rights and equality in society, where for so long we have been overcome by the will of Catholic church, which doesn’t value women.”
Horan’s nail salon Tropical Popical looks like a Caribbean beach club that got lost and found itself in Ireland. The salon’s walls are painted lime green, hot pink and electric blue. Palm trees sprout from planting pots and a life-size zebra statue keeps patrons company in the waiting room. As Tropical Popical’s Instagram account shows, the salon specializes in eye-catching custom nail designs that often include gold or silver glitter. It’s not where someone would go if she’s looking for a neutral manicure of ballet pink.
Splashy manicure styles have won Tropical Popical the hearts of fashionable Dublin women, including the Golden Globe-winning actress Saoirse Ronan. But through Horan’s efforts, the nail salon has become a hub for women’s rights advocacy. In the lead up to Friday’s referendum, the nail salon has hosted a voter registration day, posted slogans in favor of the Repeal the Eighth campaign on its Instagram, and created custom political nail designs for women who participated in September’s March for Choice and March’s International Women Day rally.
Horan calls her stylish take on abortion rights activism “throwing some glitter on the issue.” Through her advocacy group HunReal Issues, Horan has helped make abortion organizing attractive to young women through vibrant merchandise — T-shirts, sweatshirts, stickers, buttons — featuring prominent pro-Repeal messages. Spoken like the public relations maven she once was, Horan explains her aesthetic-conscious campaign: “We know what appeals to women in Ireland, so we made a brand that was relevant to our target demographic.”
Merchandise has played a major role in pro-Repeal efforts. In December, a Britain-based group called the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign created luggage tags with the message “HEALTHCARE NOT AIRFARE,” a nod to the over 170,000 Irish women who have had abortions abroad since 1980. The group then distributed north of 1,000 tags, with many going to Irish citizens living abroad so that on their return to Ireland for the Christmas holiday, their pro-abortion position would be clear. “This is about reminding people that abortion and reproductive rights should be handed back to women, so the decision can be made by her and her doctor, rather than being debated in terms of moral philosophies,” says Hannah Little, a Dublin native who now lives in London and co-founded the London-Irish ARC group.
The conversations sparked by the Repeal movement have surprised some pro-choice advocates. Mairead Enright, a lecturer of feminist legal studies at the University of Birmingham, notes how older generations of women, whom she assumed would be staunchly anti-abortion, have voiced their support for the repeal of Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion. For many years, Enright, who grew up in a village of 1000 people near Ireland’s west coast, would shy away from mentioning her research, not wanting to disturb the veil of silence surrounding abortion, divorce, and other divisive social issues. But recently when Enright has gone home, her aunts and other older women living in the village have started conversations on abortion and the Repeal campaign. “Women tell me they’re absolutely voting repeal, and they mention old child-rearing experiences and how moved they’ve been by stories they’ve read in the media.”
Enright says that the stigma surrounding abortion began to lessen in 2012, when Irish women started sharing stories about unwanted pregnancies in the aftermath of Savita Halappanavar’s death. “Once women started to talk — these were ordinary women on social media at first, and in time journalists and comedians and MPs and the like — there was an outpouring of women’s storytelling that has brought the movement together,” says Enright.
The death of Halappanavar had personal consequences for Enright, who had a master’s degree in medical law that as of 2012, she “hadn’t used in years.” Enright became politically active on reproductive rights issues and is now co-director of the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project, a collective of scholars who author opinions on historical legal cases in which judges have omitted feminist perspectives in their consideration of the issue. “Like most Irish women, it was impossible for me to turn away,” says Enright.
Since 2012, a number of incidents have added more fuel to the pro-Repeal campaign. In 2014, the case for repealing the abortion ban earned greater sympathy in Ireland after the revelation that a migrant seeking asylum had been refused an abortion despite having said she was raped and wanted to kill herself because of the unwanted pregnancy. The woman, known to the public only as Miss Y, was forced to carry the fetus until she could deliver early via Cesarean section at nearly seven months pregnant.
Another milestone came in 2015, when youth-led grassroots activism helped secure a positive vote in a referendum on marriage equality, making Ireland the first country to legalize gay marriage via a popular vote. For the feminists campaigning to repeal the abortion ban, this episode was instructional: if campaigners could help bring marriage equality to conservative Ireland, the referendum mechanism might be a tool to help bring reproductive healthcare to the country. Little, the London-based Irish advocate, says she remembers feeling in 2015 that “the tide has turned” — progressive change actually was possible in Ireland.
The referendum later this month was made possible by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who was brought to power in the 2016 general election. It was Varadkar’s cabinet that decided in January the abortion ban should be reviewed by the Irish people this May, and the prime minister, who previously served as the country’s health minister, has announced his support for liberalizing the law. Little believes that Varadkar’s support has been critical for the Repeal campaign in winning over the Irish electorate, which looks likely to vote in favor of removing the ban. (According to a poll conducted in late April, 47 percent of Irish voters support Repeal, 28 percent oppose, and 20 percent are undecided.) “When Leo Varadkar said, ‘It’s time to trust women’ — I could never have foreseen such an amazing pro-choice message,” Little explains. “It felt like maybe [abortion] is going to be accepted.”
The possibility of legalizing abortion in Ireland has encouraged campaigners in Northern Ireland, where abortion is also illegal. Like in the South, women must travel for abortions or request pills via telemedicine networks and doctors based in other EU countries. Recent years have seen thousands of Northern Irish women receive abortions in another part of the UK or seek abortion pills from two major EU-based healthcare networks. However, unlike in Ireland, the stakes of an abortion are much higher for women living in the North, since the region is governed by a Victorian-era statute that demands life in prison for having received an abortion. “Before Trump got into power in America, he did an interview where he said women should be punished for having had an abortion,” remembers Emma Campbell, an abortion rights advocate who leads the Belfast-based Alliance for Choice group. “Americans were horrified. We were like ‘Hey, that’s us.’”
Campbell and her peers are working toward modernizing Northern Ireland’s position on abortion, a task that is difficult due to the region’s complicated political situation. For the past year and a half, the two major factions of the Northern Irish Assembly have not been able to come to an agreement and form a government, which has left advocates little opportunity to lobby for policy changes on abortion in Belfast.
But with the help of British Labour MP Stella Creasy, advocates in Northern Ireland have decided to make their case in Westminster, arguing that reproductive health access is a human right and therefore under the authority of the British Parliament. “Being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy is a human rights violation as far as I’m concerned,” says Creasy, who has championed abortion access for Northern Irish women in Westminster. Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s campaign manager for Northern Ireland, is collaborating with Creasy and says that her organization has arranged meetings between MPs from Westminster and women and medical professionals from Northern Ireland. “We want to make sure that no women on the isle of Ireland is left behind,” Teggart says.
Advocates’ campaigning efforts may be helped along in the coming weeks, when the United Kingdom’s highest court is expected to rule on two cases concerning Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law. And Creasy, who has already won Northern Irish women the right to have an abortion in Britain at no cost like other UK residents, says that she has begun planning a proposal for legislation that would address Northern Irish women’s inability to access abortion. “I’ve championed women’s rights around the world,” the parliamentarian says. “And this is on our back door. In a country like Poland where we say women’s rights are in threat, it’s hard to make that argument if we’re not taking care of inequities of our own.”
The abortion advocacy campaign may be an indication that the conservative Irish isle is ready to modernize on both sides of the UK border. But in addition, the progressive initiative has united Irish women across the old fractious divide of Protestant versus Catholic, the root of much of the violence that characterized Irish life in the twentieth century. For Campbell, it has been important to support the Repeal effort, though she believes the removal of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment will not have a significant effect on the women of Northern Ireland. In the past few months, Campbell and other Alliance members have traveled to Dublin for a rally, canvassed in the rural towns on the Republic side of the Irish-North Irish border, and fundraised to help citizens of the Irish Republic living in Northern Ireland to return home to vote in Friday’s referendum. “We are making a space that never existed before,” Campbell says, adding, “I hope we’ve been instrumental in turning the conversation around.”