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Conscience Magazine

An All-Ireland Win for Abortion Rights

By Ella Whelan August 31, 2018

On May 26, Ireland celebrated the news that its citizens had voted—by a landslide—to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, which equated the life of the pregnant woman to the life of the unborn and made abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality. Many Irish women and prochoice activists had been waiting a long time for this result, as the catastrophic loss of the 1983 referendum on abortion lingered in the back of their minds. For them, 1983 was a sore reminder that nothing was for certain—and that everything was up for grabs in 2018.

This is why the most recent Irish abortion referendum was so fascinating. Yes, it resulted in a historic win for women’s rights in Ireland, and has set an example for women across the globe who hope to overturn medieval laws and secure their bodily autonomy. Irish politicians are now free to create new laws providing access to abortion and—more importantly—Irish voters are now empowered to ensure that these laws reflect their prochoice sentiments. But the referendum also achieved something else.

In an era stained by panic over “fake news,” cynicism about voters’ intelligence and mistrust of the political system, the Irish abortion referendum illustrated how powerful pure democracy can be. From the beginnings of the Citizens’ Assembly right up until the last vote was cast on May 25, Irish citizens shaped the debate about abortion rights. No question-dodging politicians flinging inflammatory rhetoric into the airwaves, no media spin—just ordinary people from Skibbereen to Sligo deciding what was best for them.

And their decision was overwhelming. The “Yes” campaign won almost exactly two-thirds of the vote, forcing the “No” campaign—which only won in the constituency of Donegal and received just 33.6 percent of the vote nationwide—to reckon with a new Ireland. Voter turnout was similarly high at 64.1 percent, with over 200,000 more voters taking part than had done so in the marriage-equality referendum in 2015.

This was not the result many had expected. Ailbhe Smyth, head of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and co-founder of the Together for Yes campaign, told me that prochoice advocates were perhaps too cautious when it came to winning: “We should have trusted our own canvassers more. In retrospect, there were many signs that were telling us that everything was going to be okay—canvassing reports kept coming back with positive results, and people were engaging with our campaigners.” Smyth remembers what it was like during the 1983 referendum, when it was far harder to argue for abortion rights in a largely antichoice Ireland, but: “This time round, we had a broad base of support. I think it was very important for people that we weren’t just one face—for years we’ve built up the coalition and had gained recognition as a very representative movement.”

For many prochoice campaigners, the biggest worry was that rural areas in the south and west of Ireland would vote against the repeal. Urban centers like Dublin were seen as metropolitan, safe areas, where trendy youngsters and more liberal-minded communities would deliver a “Yes” vote, but the underlying fear remained that devout Catholics and farmers living in remote areas would naturally be against change. On the day of the referendum, an article in The Guardian claimed that those outside of city centers were suffering from “intense conditioning”—in other words, there was no hope for the rural backwaters of Ireland. Happily, so-called bog dwellers (like my own family from the Wicklow Mountains) proved them wrong. My own grandmother, who is a regular Mass-goer from a tiny village, was proud of the fact that she was voting “Yes.”

Many worried about Kerry farmers—Kerry voted 58.3 percent in favor of repeal. Mayo, in the west of Ireland (which often elicits stereotypes of people allergic to change), voted 57.07 percent “Yes.” Roscommon-Galway—the only constituency to vote “No” in the marriage-equality referendum—voted 57.2 percent in the affirmative for abortion rights. Just after the votes were cast, an RTÉ exit poll claimed that 63 percent of rural voters had voted “Yes,” including 52.5 percent of farmers. This was not, as expected, just a win for young Dubliners.

[T]here was no hope for the rural backwaters of Ireland. Happily, so-called bog dwellers . . . proved them wrong.

So what won it for the “Yes” campaign? Was it the use of social media, which gathered support under a “#repealthe8th” slogan and internationalized solidarity online? Did the “No” campaign repulse the electorate with its use of controversial tactics like images of bloody fetuses and slogans accusing abortion providers of murder? Or was it the fact that Ireland had spent 35 more years watching women travel to the United Kingdom for abortions, buy pills online or die from lack of access to treatment?

Smyth says that striking the right tone was key to the campaign’s success. “A calm, disciplined, research-based approach is what worked,” she told me. “We were quite cool with our messages, and rejected the temptation to engage in some of the more nervous, hysterical, divisive debates.” Indeed, the Together for Yes campaign was remarkably disciplined. While in Dublin during the campaign, I observed a canvassing session in one of the city’s southern suburbs. Though it was run and organized by working-class women in the area—mums, partners, teenagers—and not campaign officials, they made sure to instill canvassers with a sense that what happened on the doorstep was part of a tight operation.

This same restraint was evident in the “Yes” campaign’s use of posters. In contrast to the sensationalist posters on the “No” side (emblazoned with slogans like “If killing your unborn baby at six months bothers you, vote ‘No’” and “A licence to kill?”), the “Yes” side was keen to seem measured. “Sometimes a private matter needs public support,” read one. “Every pregnancy is different, each decision is personal,” said another.

As with all political campaigns, messaging and communication with voters is crucial. And as the zeitgeist roils with allegations of “fake news,” misinformation campaigns and bias in the media, supporters and opponents of the Eighth Amendment repeatedly clashed over the types of information voters could consider while making their decision. First, the “No” campaign put its posters up more than a week before any “Yes” posters were visible. Some argued that this had given the “No” side an unfair head start but, after raising over €170,000 despite the delay, the “Yes” side displayed its posters in early April to widespread support. Then there was a furor in Dublin when a giant “Repeal” mural by street artist Maser was painted over. But, again, this had little to do with bias. The mural had been painted on the side of the Project Arts Centre, which was subject to political neutrality rules enforced by the Charities Regulator.

There were also claims from both sides that activists had been spotted tearing down posters or moving them to less-prominent positions. The “No” side argued that the “Yes” vote benefited from media bias—as celebrities like Cillian Murphy, Saoirse Ronan and Father Ted’s Pauline McLynn publicly supported the “Yes” campaign. Despite the endless debates on talk shows, news channels and radio stations, it became a running joke among “No” campaigners that a “No” vote would be a rebellion against the status quo and liberal elite of Ireland.

Perhaps the most contentious point of the referendum came when the “No” campaign was accused of using external funds and outside advertising. It is illegal for Irish political campaigns to accept foreign donations, but this didn’t quell the complaints about the “No” campaign being bolstered by largesse from abroad. Rumors swirled about American money boosting the “No” campaign, and were often used as a means to undermine its arguments. Some Together for Yes campaigners told CNN that they had heard “American accents” on their doorsteps from “No” canvassers. The Irish Sun claimed it had found details of fundraising pages online that were run by Americans in order to help the “No” campaign during the referendum.

But the Together for Yes campaign quite rightly refrained from running the rumor mill about dodgy American funding on the “No” side. When Facebook, and then Google, announced that they would be controlling which advertisements Irish voters could see, however, the “Yes” side did not remain silent. First, Facebook announced that it would only allow organizations located within Ireland to purchase advertisements relating to the referendum. The next day, Google announced that it would “pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment.”

The “No” campaign denounced this as an unfair attack on its ability to use videos and social media to spread its message (while the “Yes” campaign had more than 30,000 followers on Twitter, the LoveBoth and Save The 8th campaigns used Facebook and YouTube—a Google subsidiary—to connect with voters). The “Yes” campaign celebrated. “We believe this referendum will be won on facts, and now when undecided voters are searching online, they’ll see the most relevant answers to their questions—not the ones that are paid to be put in front of them,” Smyth said at the time.

Ailbhe Smyth speaking to the media in Dublin on May 26, 2018. © ROLLINGNEWS.IE / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Ailbhe Smyth speaking to the media in Dublin on May 26, 2018.

The “Yes” campaign didn’t need Google patrolling the internet in order to secure a win. And, at the time, the celebration of the advert ban seemed like an own goal for the “Yes” side. Supporters of the Eighth Amendment claimed that this was yet another way that their opponents were silencing their point of view. “Who are we accusing of rigging the referendum?” tweeted Save The 8th communications director John McGuirk. “Government ministers, Yes campaigners and frankly a lot of journalists who’ve been putting immense pressure on these organisations.”

But, more importantly, the idea that Irish voters needed Facebook or Google to guide them towards the correct information was dangerously patronizing. The “Yes” campaign risked losing the trust it had gained among the electorate by giving credence to the idea that ordinary voters would be tricked into believing outrageous videos from antichoice activists in the United States if they weren’t stopped from seeing them.

The truth is that the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment wasn’t won by clever campaign tactics, slick media appearances or a level playing field enforced by either the state or Big Technology. What won out in the end was the Irish people’s ability to understand the reality of women’s experiences and needs in 21st century Ireland. Prochoice groups like In Her Shoes shared stories on Facebook of women who had been forced to travel for abortions so that voters could read firsthand accounts of what it was like to miscarry on a Ryanair flight after a procedure done in secret. “Yes” campaigners were well-versed on the facts of how many Irish women were traveling to the United Kingdom for abortions—nine a day—and many voters knew women who had experienced the injustices of Ireland’s backward laws.

Let this be a lesson to future prochoice movements: trust people. Irish voters were ready for change, and came out in huge numbers to reconcile Irish law with that sentiment. In a political climate in which democracy often gets a bad name, the Irish abortion referendum should be an example to all who doubt the power of the public. Irish prochoice activists called for a referendum years ago, and their belief in Ireland’s desire for change has finally paid off. With this in mind, activists must capitalize on public support for a liberal approach to abortion and make sure that politicians make good, fair laws that honor the now-apparent will of the Irish body politic. The battle against the Eighth Amendment is over, but the war to secure Irish women’s bodily autonomy has only just begun.

Ella Whelan
Ella Whelan

is author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Tagged Abortion