#RepealedThe8th: People stood up for the women of Ireland

Together for Yes co-directors Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council of Ireland; Ailbhe Smyth of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, and Grainne Griffin of the Abortion Rights Campaign. Picture: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

The hard-fought campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment began as soon as it was inserted into the Constitution 35 years ago. Last year the nation collectively stood up for the women of Ireland, writes Ailbhe Smyth, former co-director of Together for Yes.

When we realised we had won so irrefutably, it was for many of us as if a great weight had been lifted from our shoulders, as if we could see the clear blue sky of freedom for the first time in our lives as women.

It was all the more extraordinary for being so unexpected. It’s still hard to believe that, a year ago, more than 66% of Irish people voted to remove the Eighth Amendment from our Constitution.

The results meant there will be no more boats, no more flights, and no more hiding in shame. There is still much to be done of course.

We need to ensure that abortion services are available to all women throughout the country.

There needs to be legislative measures put in place to make sure that no patient, healthcare provider or member of the public is ever harassed for entering premises where abortion services are provided. 

Very importantly, we must monitor closely the application of the law to ensure we can amend and expand it when it falls due for review in two and a half years’ time.

The success of the campaign has had the greatest and most immediate everyday meaning for women who are now entitled to access abortion here in Ireland, as part of normal healthcare.

There is also the wider impact the referendum had for women in Ireland — last May, the entire nation collectively stood up for us, for our freedom, our autonomy, our equality, and our dignity as people.

And there is the impact for Irish society more broadly in confirming that we have definitively put behind us an authoritarian, miserable, punitive past.

Last year’s victory demonstrated that there is a generation of young people who are liberal, open-minded, and tolerant, as well as energetic, politically engaged, and impressively capable. 

And it’s not only young people either. 

Significant numbers of older generations (my own included) worked towards a ‘Yes’ vote for a much fairer, kinder Ireland than the one we grew up in.

It goes without saying that what stood out about the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which began 35 long years ago, was that it was a campaign led by women. 

Over the past few decades, women set up grassroots groups and organisations, volunteered, marched, canvassed, donated, organised, made our voices heard.

We never gave up. And we were successful. 

Last year, we led a very determined, compassionate and dignified campaign. 

We listened to each other and to the voters, and we showed that people of all ages and from all political parties and none can come together to bring about real political change which impacts on the everyday lives of Irish people.

The knock-on effect of this is already being seen. According to Women for Election, 566 of the 1,960 candidates in the recently held local elections were women.

That’s 29% of the candidates, up from 21.6% in 2014. With more women being elected to positions of power, the realisation of a more equal and just Irish society will grow that bit closer.

Last year’s campaign is also having a positive impact for women in the North, currently denied the rights women have in Britain and we now have here in the Republic. 

Since last May, activists in the North say they are seeing a groundswell of support, especially from young people. 

It is our responsibility now to support wholeheartedly women in the north and those campaigning for reproductive rights to achieve success similar to our own.

Throughout the world, we are seeing the backlash against women’s reproductive rights intensifying. 

From the near-total prohibition in Argentina and the very recent ban on abortion in Alabama, to closer to home in Poland, in Croatia, even in Germany, women’s rights are being threatened, restricted or denied. 

Abortion rights protestors in the US
Abortion rights protestors in the US

As a small country on the edge of a rich, powerful continent, our voice is not loud.

However, the referendum result here was a real boost for the morale of pro-choice campaigners throughout the world; and we hope it can be a beacon of light wherever and whenever abortion rights are denied or at risk.

It is my hope that the recent global recognition by Time magazine for the Together for Yes campaign victory will help inspire those fighting for reproductive rights worldwide.

Last May’s result must be of some value in a world where the forces of misogyny, repression, and intolerance are so darkly omnipresent. 

Where abortion is concerned, Ireland has moved from virtually total prohibition to a relatively pro-choice position — although, it must be acknowledged that the shift took all of 35 hard, bleak years.

Nonetheless, the referendum result marked a resounding defeat for misogyny and extreme right-wing forces. 

While I sometimes struggle still to believe the events of last May ever really happened, I am immensely proud of what we achieved, together.

Ailbhe Smyth is a former co-director of Together for Yes.

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