Abortion rights were secured by a thoughtful, inclusive campaign

Abortion rights were secured by a thoughtful, inclusive campaign
Pictured Amelia Goonerage from Dublin joins Yes campaigners celebrationing their win in Dublin Castle after the the yes vote won the Irish referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment. Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie.

Given that the issue divided Ireland so bitterly and for so long, it is difficult to believe abortion is now available here.

An extraordinary 66.4% of us voted yes to approve it in the referendum in May 2018. But once the initial excitement had died down, so, too, did the realisation of what a monumental job had been done by the Together for Yes campaign.

That campaign was a coming together of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, the Abortion Rights Campaign, and National Women’s Council of Ireland. These organisations were headed by three women who led a female-dominated, determined, grassroots campaign.

Afterwards, I felt the credit they were due was withheld from a number of quarters.

That is why I wrote a book along with those three women, Ailbhe Smyth, Grainne Griffin, and Orla O’Connor, to get behind the scenes of this incredible campaign; to tell the story of how it led so successfully to such a change in Irish society, with the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

The campaign drew together very different groups, with very different opinions on how to go about repeal, and it kept them united.

The research conducted in the very early days of the campaign, to gauge Irish people’s attitudes to abortion, fascinated me.

Many people were battle weary and worn out by angry debates on a fraught subject. They were in fear of offending others, so they simply never raised the topic in conversation.

A Dublin-based advertising and design company, Language, had been engaged to carry out this research.

The director of the agency, Adam May, and researcher Karen Hand held a number of focus groups,beginning in late 2016, in Dublin, Mullingar, and Tralee.

The first task was to find out what differentiated the centre ground from the activists on the yes and no sides. It was clear from opinion polls that a large majority of Irish people would only support abortion in certain, restricted circumstances.

These people were troubled by the status quo, but also wary of change. They sought solutions, but were unable to identify what those might be.

The research confirmed that Irish people simply did not speak about abortion, and didn’t have the language to do so. They also didn’t have the facts.

“It was really interesting, what the polarisation of the debate over decades had resulted in,” said May, who had worked previously on the marriage equality referendum.

“The ugliness of the debate had actually driven it to that, and created a level of ignorance and an inability to grasp the issue for the majority of people.

They recoiled from the aggressiveness. They were afraid to bring it up as a subject,because you didn’t know where someone else was coming from on it and you were scared of what reaction you might get.”

People were working through an emotional trade-off between abortion being introduced in Ireland or not.

May said that, going into the research, he had the idea that there was some sort of soft continuum between the pro-choice and the pro-life sides.

In fact, what he learned was that the public saw themselves as outside the abortion debate, seeing it as a coliseum with two gladiators locked in combat.

But many people, when asked about change, said they wanted any possible outcome to be caring and humane; they wanted it to represent the kind of Ireland they felt existed.

Taking all of this on board, in approaching a referendum, May said the challenge was to communicate with the middle ground, or the ‘concerned centre’, as they became known.

This centre ground, the research found, was thoughtful and caring and realistic about the need for change, but also felt emotionally torn. They wanted gradual change. They wanted there to be a reason for an abortion. They also appreciated straight talking.

People were also not afraid to acknowledge the developing life of the foetus.

Previous abortion campaigns had done everything to avoid acknowledging that. But the research showed that people had no problem acknowledging that there is a baby, and that not to do so was to be seen as being partial with the truth and not recognising reality.

It was important to acknowledge two lives, but they were not viewed as being of the same value. Another research finding was that the involvement of doctors in the abortion decision was key.

People did care. They sought solutions.

They simply were not sure what those solutions might be and how they might work. It was a real revelation, said May, that the public had a strong ethical position on this, but didn’t have both sides of the moral argument, so they could weigh it up for themselves.

“This was a really important insight to factor into the campaign,” he said. “You can’t assert rights without having established the moral basis. To do so is just to shout people down.

They are wrong if they do not agree with you.

The public needed the emotional conflict to be recognised, and this was what we had to establish in order to have people to listen to you, let alone talk to themselves: To be able to establish from the outset that there are negative outcomes with both positions.

THESE conclusions brought their own challenges. Traditionally, the fight for abortion rights had been just that — a fight, with each side setting down its demand to allow abortion, or to continue to ban it.

The conclusions of the focus groups, and of the other research, were not easy for some of the campaigners to accept.

There were definite findings that could be utilised for a campaign, but the crux was that abortion would have to be expressed as a need, rather than a right, for women, which, for many activists, was a difficult step.

This referendum was seen as a once-in-a-generation chance to change the law and it was almost impossible for some to imagine that a softer, gentler, reasoned approach could win it.

There was plenty of discussion and debate in the aftermath of these findings, but the leaders of what turned out to be such a savvy campaign recognised that this was the best way to have that conversation with people.

This was just one aspect of the campaign.

Another was an extraordinary canvassing operation, with a new and specially designed software package that fed back crucial information from doorsteps all over Ireland.

It’s a Yes! How Together for Yes Repealed the Eighth and Transformed Irish Society, by Gráinne Griffin, Orla O’Connor, and Ailbhe Smyth, with Alison O’Connor

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