Sinead is one of tens of thousands of women who have been forced to leave Ireland to access abortion services.
“I’ve no regrets about my abortion and the choice I made,” she said. “The biggest factor was the secrecy—it made me feel I’d done something wrong. Society makes it a secret.”
Eimear remembers arriving in England from Ireland for an abortion in 1993. She starts crying when she remembers having to find a working public phone to call her mother and keep up the pretence of her “great time in London”.
“I don’t regret it,” she said. “I regret the secrecy around it. We have to be trusted to know that we don’t want to be a mother at that time.”
Eimear and Sinead spoke publicly about their abortions for the first time just days ahead of a referendum on limited decriminalisation of abortion in Ireland.
The vote on 25 May could strike a decisive blow against anti-abortionists.
Ireland is being asked whether to “repeal the 8th Amendment to the constitution” (see below).
Added in 1983 the 8th sets the rights of a pregnant woman on an equal footing with the rights of a foetus.
The referendum has led to a huge grassroots movement fighting for a strong Yes vote to smash the 8th Amendment.
Thousands are being drawn into political activity—often for the first time—organising meetings, arguing with voters and knocking on doors.
Eimear and Sinead said the experience of campaigning has helped break down the stigma of talking about their own abortions.
“I’ve told more people in the last 24 hours than I ever have done before,” said Eimear.
Ireland’s rulers have come under increasing pressure to change the law in recent years.
The reaction to the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 prompted minor changes to the law. Savita died because of complications from a septic miscarriage when she was 17 weeks pregnant.
The 8th Amendment meant doctors refused to perform an abortion because the foetus had a heartbeat. Her death brought a fresh wave of anger over how the Irish state controls women’s bodies.
The Protection of Life bill 2013 allows for abortion in extremely limited circumstances—if the life of the woman is judged to be at acute risk.
It’s been used only a handful of times in five years. Meanwhile there’s still a 14-year sentence for any woman or medical practitioner who seeks to procure an abortion in Ireland.
The 8th does not stop Irish women having abortions—it just stops legal, safe and accessible abortions.
An estimated 3,000 women travel abroad to have an abortion every year, often to London and Liverpool.
The cost stops many more women travelling. And not everyone has the necessary immigration papers or the ability to get time off work.
Sinead, who was 16 when she had her abortion, remembered that “the money had to be found”.
The referendum takes place under the shadow of decades of scandals about the Catholic Church
“In 1993 it was £1,000 to £1,500—there wasn’t that money lying around easily,” she said. “My main feeling was relief but I felt guilt that I’d put the burden on my parents, who had five other children to take care of.”
The Women Help Women organisation estimated that every day at least two people, unable to travel, use abortion pills. They do this without medical attention, often too scared to tell anyone for fear of criminalisation.
And the 8th affects every pregnant woman. Women can be denied life-saving medical treatment if there’s a possibility of harming the foetus.
Brid Smith, People Before Profit TD, locates the strength of the fight for repeal in the grassroots movement.
“The best thing about the campaign has been feet on the streets, and the activism that has opened up” she told Socialist Worker.
“If it was just the Together For Yes campaign (see right) without this movement it would be meaningless.”
Brid stressed that the stakes are high. “This isn’t just about abortion,” she said. “This is about the future of the political shape of Ireland.”
The anti-choice bigots, headed by umbrella organisation Love Both, have filled the streets with posters that equate abortion with killing “pre-born babies”.
Maria founded the group Angels 4 Yes that blocks these distressing images using large theatrical wings.
She experienced two miscarriages and said, “Images like this have no place in the campaign.”
Younger votes are most likely to support Yes, while those over 50 are the ones most determined to retain it.
Evebelle is a student at Dublin Trinity campaigning for Yes. She says there is “huge support” for Yes at the university.
“We got 1,000 Trinity students registered to vote in one day,” she said. “Young people are really mobilised by this.
“It’s been an amazing experience. I’m very much a feminist, and after the referendum I’m not going to run of issues to fight about.”
Canvassing for support has become the central focus for the campaign, with canvasses organised each night. And it’s popular—mass canvassing can attract over a hundred people at weekends.
When Together for Yes activists knocked on Paul’s door in Walkinstown, a suburb of south Dublin, he was happy to show his support.
“I’m definitely voting Yes,” he said. “It should be a choice between a woman and her doctor, and the medical care should happen in Ireland.”
And he touched on the hypocrisy of the anti-choice bigots who pretend to care about the wellbeing of children.
“I’ve got a disabled daughter, where’s the care for her?” he asked. “They’re cutting her respite care.”
The referendum takes place under the shadow of decades of scandals about the Catholic Church.
Exposures of the abuse at the heart of homes for unmarried mothers and their children by the Catholic Church have rocked
Ireland. Just last year, the remains of hundreds of babies were discovered in a sewage tank at a mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway.
This memory is fresh in the mind of activists, who want to “leave the old Ireland behind”, says Brid.
“If the conservative Catholic right get their way, they won’t stop at holding onto the 8th,” she said. “They will start looking at the law to stop abortion pills.”
It is a disgrace that governments still try to restrict a woman’s right to choose.
Reproductive rights are central to women’s ability to direct their own lives.
Ireland’s abortion law is a product of a society that tries to control every aspects of women’s sexual freedom and life choices.
But the battle to change it could have much wider implications.
“They say the floodgates will open for abortion on demand,” said Brid.
“I say the floodgates will open for the fight against the gender pay gap, for affordable childcare, free contraception and to end the housing crisis.
“The floodgates will open in terms of the kind of demands that the women’s movement can make in this society. All of these are class issues.”
The vote will have worldwide significance in the fight for reproductive justice. A Yes vote will be a huge step forward for everyone fighting for women’s rights.
But the women it will affect most are women like Sinead and Eimear, who are often spoken for but rarely listened to by the powerful.
“When the 8th is repealed it will give people the choice,” said Eimear. “People often refer to ‘those women’—but we are those women.”
Sinead added, “It feels hard that in 2018 we have to put a face to a story. I hope we don’t have to again.”
Some are trying to hold back the pace of change
Together For Yes is an umbrella organisation of the Coalition for the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment, Abortion Rights Campaign and National Women’s Council of Ireland.
It also contains members of the Dail—the Irish parliament—and sections of the Irish state that have blocked reproductive rights.
“They have no track record on abortion,” said Brid. “I proposed a bill about a year and a half ago in the Dail to reduce the sentence from 14 years to a fine of one euro.
“They voted it down.”
Those who have spent decades obstructing social progress have not suddenly had a change of heart.
Instead they are responding to the changing political mood.
The upcoming vote comes shortly after an overwhelming victory for same sex marriage in the 2015 referendum.
Some politicians of the ruling parties see the current referendum as a way to rehabilitate themselves.
Austerity measures, imposed by successive governments have hit Ireland hard over the last decade.
And those in the state who have tried to restrict abortion rights in the past now seek to control the movement that is demanding change.
By becoming part of the Together For Yes campaign, they are in a position to push back against more far reaching reforms.
Some activists are frustrated at how the official Together For Yes campaign has tried to moderate the message of pro-choice campaigners.
Brid explained that campaigners are encouraged to use the language of “care and compassion” rather than basing arguments on a woman’s right to choose.
She said campaign leaders claim talking of “choice” sounds too flippant.
“They say it sounds like you’re going to McDonald’s for a burger and you might choose this or that one,” she said.
What are they repealing?
The 8th amendment was added to the Irish Constitution in 1983, and was partly a reaction to the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain.
It reads “The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
Abortion was already illegal in Ireland. But this was an attempt to make it harder to relax the rules.
What about Northern Ireland?
The British Abortion Act 1967 has never been fully applied to Northern Ireland.
Yet women there should receive the same NHS treatments as they do in Britain.
Women in Northern Ireland are supposed to be able to have abortions. But it is so difficult to access that many travel to England to terminate or take pills at home.
It’s illegal to access these pills, and three women have been prosecuted by the police in recent years.