What Ireland’s repeal means for Australia

MASER's Repeal Artwork, DublinBy Louise Omer

Over the weekend, I witnessed Dublin in the midst of revolution. A revolution where grins of solidarity were shared between strangers wearing Yes badges or where you could see the tense hope of Mar canvassing at Dublin Connolly station twenty-seven years after campaigning for an illegal condom machine at a university. The moment when Ilaina cheered gregariously, a Malaysian woman fighting for the visibility of migrant women, rang out. The moment we all literally felt the electricity of triumph at Dublin Castle as people poured and kept pouring into the cobblestone courtyard, the roaring crowd celebrating the activists and politicians onstage – almost all of whom were women.

It’s hard to describe the rage and hope and relief, the sense of power toppling, of a new world unfurling. Instead, here are the facts.

On May 25, Ireland voted Yes in an historic referendum to legalise abortion. The vote was to repeal the eighth amendment, a 1983 addition to the Irish constitution that gave “the unborn” “equal right to life as the mother”.

As many advocates for women’s rights know, outlawing reproductive healthcare doesn’t stop women seeking abortions, but instead makes them harder to access. It increases the suffering of women in crisis.

Each day, 12 women travel from Ireland to England to seek reproductive healthcare; at least 170,216 women and girls have done so between 1980 and 2016. A further number order abortion pills to take at home without medical supervision, under risk of breaking the law. This carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment under 2013′s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.

But on Saturday May 25, the country staged a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, with 66.4% voting Yes. The 2:1 victory was a surprise to the entire country – even prominent Yes activists on the day of the referendum feared it mightn’t pass.

In a country emerging from the stronghold of Catholic values, testimonies of women’s experience have been tantamount in changing the hearts and minds of voters. The story of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died in 2012 from septicaemia after she was denied an abortion, galvanised the movement, and her image has come to represent the pain of Irish women.

Similarly, Not at Home is an art project that published the testimonies of women travelling to England. The group Terminations for Medical Reasons campaigned hard to make the lived experiences of women who had a termination in a case of foetal abnormality heard. On Twitter, in newspapers, and in conversations across the country, the taboo was broken as women bravely revealed their stories, provoking emotional responses, and educating about the personal impact of the abhorrent laws.

The punishment of female sexuality is the historical context of the referendum. Throughout the 20th century “fallen women” who became pregnant out of marriage were pushed into Mother Baby Homes or Magdalene Laundries. These state-sponsored institutions were run by the Church, with incredible evidence of slave-like conditions, starvation and abuse.

Young women I know told me a No vote would have signified that Ireland doesn’t care about women (well – stronger language may have been used). They spoke about leaving the country, or if they were expats, about never coming home.

The evening the results were announced, the streets of Dublin were jubilant. Repeal t-shirts were everywhere and pubs were packed; a group of women decorated their car with colourful “YES”s and drove up and down Dame St, shouting from a megaphone and beeping at pedestrians who whooped in return. Locals were not celebrating, as conservative Catholics claimed, because they wanted to “kill babies”; but because it illustrates a shift in the Irish attitude towards women. By successfully fighting for bodily autonomy, women in Ireland have claimed their freedom.

The day after the victory, I spoke to Kathy D’Arcy, editor of the anthology Autonomy and Chair of the Cork Together for Yes campaign. “I felt in my heart that the country hated me,” she said. “A lot of women felt that. But we woke up this morning and we realised this country belongs to us.”

She was in her office, already sending emails to politicians. Legislation, for terminations up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, is hoped to be passed within six months. That’s not fast enough, D’Arcy says. It’s important to remember that women are leaving the country on planes this morning to access abortions.

This has similarities to Australian reproductive healthcare. In January the last clinic in Tasmania to provide terminations closed, forcing women to travel to access abortions. Michelle Thompson, chief executive of Marie Stopes, told the Guardian this year that 10-12 Tasmanian women are visiting the Melbourne clinic every month. This is only five years since abortion was decriminalised.

As well as being an incredibly stressful experience, travelling to access an abortion is expensive. There is the cost of the surgical procedure itself, add up flights, accommodation, and time off work; this is an economic issue.

Australian laws are different in each state. In Queensland and NSW, abortion remains illegal – unless a woman’s mental or physical health is threatened. Seeking a solution, many women order the abortion pill and take it without medical supervision. This situation puts the health of many at risk.

As we’ve seen in Ireland, campaigning for abortion is not about the ethical legitimacy of the procedure; we know that women will seek the reproductive healthcare they need, whether it’s legal or not. Instead, the provision of safe and easy access to abortion is about prioritising the medical care of women. And Australia needs to keep fighting.


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Louise Omer, photographed by Bri Hammond
Louise Omer writes on feminism, religion and books, with work published in The Guardian, The Australian, The Saturday Paper and The Lifted Brow. In 2017 she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship recipient and shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize. She is currently working on her first book, Holy Woman

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