A Repeal From The People // Dispatches From The Irish Referendum
by Kate O’Sullivan.
Every Monday feels like a new start and on this Monday, as I write this, I feel a sense of hope that I’ve not felt for some time. It’s the Monday after a referendum that will change the healthcare provision for people who can become pregnant in Ireland. On the 25th May 2018, the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the 8th Amendment, a constitutional ban on abortions and ruling that meant the absence of safe and respectful reproductive healthcare. Flying into Dublin this weekend, I didn’t feel much of this jubilant hope I feel today. Yet as those of us wearing ‘Repeal’ sweaters and ‘tá’ badges converged on customs, I allowed myself to start believing this change for the better would happen. Going back has always been a mixed bag of emotions for me. Anti-abortionist propaganda placed at child’s eye level was often the first thing I noticed as I walked through streets and the demonstrations and marches fairly standard. Abortion laws was a topic best avoided in most company.
I’m unable to vote in Ireland despite my Irish background and was there this weekend as the result of a commission for photography at an event predominantly attended by women. It was an emotional project for me as I understood that I was documenting history. For many of the women I photographed this weekend, they’d only ever known the 8th as a topic filled with fear, hatred and shame. To talk about your body, let alone intercourse or abortion was something associated with sin and shame. One woman openly wept as she admitted she’d been too afraid to canvas, such was the aggression and poisonous rage aimed at those supporting the call for change. Like so many, her relief that no one has to bear the trauma that amendment has led to was palpable. Still, it will take some time to heal and the guilt she expressed wasn’t an isolated case. Over the course of that 32 hours in Dublin, women quietly came to tell me their repeal stories, their abortion stories and the painfully traumatic scenes they’d witnessed as medical staff.
As the dust settles and the posters come down, something important is emerging that may well shape the way we move forward with campaigns for reproductive health and the right for everyone to be allowed choice and dignity. In the early days of the campaign, stories that had previously gone unheard began to gain attention. Women such as Roisin Ingle shared their experiences of abortion on a national level and stories such as the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar became the emotional weapon with which campaigners were finally able to fight back.
As voting weekend approached, not only were people talking, they were doing so with increasingly unapologetic opinions, vulnerability and confidence. The national narrative was changing. In a campaign previously dominated by an aggressive and terrifyingly dominant No side, removing shame unlocked levels of discussion previously refused. The direct impact of this struck me across my weekend in Dublin. Never before had I had so many women display their trauma. I was deeply shaken by what they have been holding, alone, for far too long. The campaign for Repeal has become an act of healing as much as it has for constitutional change.
Over the past few months, accounts such as InHerIrishshoes and the use of #inhershoes gathered momentum and soon we all bore witness to stories of those whose lives had been changed forever by the failure to access safe abortions. This grassroots activism, alongside the presence of campaigners such as trans activist Matt Kennedy and Kate McGrew of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland did much to highlight the complexity of an abortion ban. It humanised the debate and challenged stigma. Whether all voices felt represented by the Together for Yes side is still being debated but many of us took note.
What we take away from Friday’s result is that narratives hold power. Voices previously unheard such as working-class women unable to travel who risked jail sentences and their health by taking unregulated pills held weight. 40% of women of childbearing age that currently live in a country where abortion is banned, restricted or not accessible. If we are to move forward, one thing is clear: every voice must be heard. We even need to address the way this information is collected to include those women often unseen in public census results, trans, non-binary and intersex people.
Legislation for Ireland is expected to be drafted in the coming months and tabled in the Oireachtas after the summer recess, potentially becoming law by the end of the year. In the meantime, safe abortions will not be an option for pregnant people in Ireland and charities such as the Abortion Support Network will continue to help bring them to the UK for terminations. Activists and politicians must now begin the work of ensuring the safe and effective implementation of this repeal. The addition of exclusion zones to stop prolife protests outside clinics seem particularly pertinent in the light of new calls to resist the outcome and any subsequent legislation.
What’s more, we are now left looking at those left behind in this surge of change. Abortion remains illegal and inaccessible to those in Northern Ireland and this discrepancy with the rest of the UK is painful and poignant. If my weekend in Dublin taught me anything, it is that silence is the greatest weapon for those who would prefer the North remained abortion free. It’s time to hear all the voices so that the cycle of shame stops. It’s time to change.