Ireland’s Yes campaigners’ greatest success? Convincing voters that women are people too

In repealing the Eighth Amendment, the country vowed to stop treating women like mere vessels that might one day contain a more important life.

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It was the taxi driver who convinced me. I’d come to the James Joyce Bridge in Dublin, the evening before Ireland voted on repealing its constitutional restriction on abortion, to join a group of campaigners who hoped to watch the sun set on the Eighth Amendment for the last time. Everyone was exhausted but hopeful. “I couldn’t do another day,” Philomena Canning of Midwives for Choice told the small crowd. “I couldn’t do another week. It’s got to happen on Saturday.”

All the speeches had been interrupted by cars honking as they went past. But as Canning finished, this one really went for it. Hanging out of his front window, the taxi driver waved a tattooed arm, pumping his fist in support. Yes, this was Dublin – demographically the area of the country most likely to vote to repeal the Eighth. Yes, this was about as unscientific a measure as you could devise. But taxi drivers honking in support of a constitutional reform? In seven years of covering politics, this was something I’d never seen before.

On the walk to the bridge, the campaigners had been more muted. In 2015, Ireland had voted emphatically to approve another constitutional reform, to allow gay marriage. But abortion? Surely abortion was different. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time, marriage is a happy occasion,” one young woman told me on the march. “The campaign was much more celebratory. That’s not appropriate here.”

Talking of taxi drivers, earlier I had fulfilled the foreign correspondent cliché and struck up a conversation with mine on the way in from the airport. He wasn’t all that political, he said, then added: “If you were undecided, the tactics of the No campaign would put you off. Gory photos outside the maternity hospital, with all those women going in and out?” He shook his head.

Ireland voted in 1983 to bring in the Eighth Amendment to its constitution, which ordered that “equal weight” be given to the life of the foetus and the pregnant woman. It not only prevented the decriminalisation of abortion, but hampered doctors trying to care for women. In 2012, a 31-year-old woman called Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis when 17 weeks’ pregnant, after the foetal membranes became infected but doctors refused to accelerate her miscarriage.

Other women spoke of having their cancer treatment punctuated by pregnancy tests, with the threat of the drugs being taken away if the results were positive. The “unborn” had to be protected, even when that protection meant hurting the already born. This was the great achievement of the repeal campaign: convincing the country that a ban on abortion makes women’s personhood conditional, and treats them like mere vessels that might one day contain a more important life.

At the memorial to Savita on a wall in south Dublin, flowers were stacked on the pavement; Yes stickers fluttered on the wall. Most carried handwritten messages: “Dear Savita, you wouldn’t know who I am, and if Ireland was fairer, I wouldn’t know who you are either. I hope no Irish person forgets your name.” The one that caught in my throat was one of the simplest: “I’m so sorry we let you down. It won’t be in vain.” 

On Thursday night, I had caught the train to the town of Dún Laoghaire, where some campaigners were having a glass of Prosecco in the social club. I started talking to a group of retired people who had gone canvassing for Yes: the hardest to convince, they said, were older men who lived alone. “Then you see how misogyny manifests itself,” Pat O’Connor told me. “You only see it when you knock on doors.” At the Savita memorial, I heard the same worry about younger men, “all these Red Pill guys who want to stick it to the feminists; they’re saying to women – you’ve lost the run of yourselves.”

Yet in the end, there was not much difference in voting patterns between men and women; nor, interestingly, was the rural/urban split as great as had been predicted. The Yes campaign won a majority everywhere except Donegal, the “most deprived county in Ireland, with the highest unemployment rate and not even a train service to connect us with the capital”, as a local campaigner, Noel Sharkey, described it on Twitter. “A lot of canvasses involved going up backroads and boreens. The scenery was beautiful but it took hours to get small numbers covered.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me, as an outsider, was how invisible the Church was in the final stages of the debate. Late on Saturday afternoon, I gravitated to Dublin Castle courtyard, where the results would be announced. Unlike the gay marriage referendum, there was no big screen set up; the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had decreed that there would be no triumphalism, given the No side’s belief that the country had just approved the wholesale slaughter of human life. But in the courtyard, in defiance of the Church, people did feel there was something to celebrate, and for the first time I heard anti-religious rhetoric: the old chant of “get your rosaries off our ovaries”, followed by “not the Church, not the state – women must decide their fate”.

The joy reflected the fact that Irish women already have abortions: they travel to England or order pills from the internet. What they had won was the right to have them safely, near their own homes. No more partners left behind while a frightened woman caught a plane on her own. No more made-up shopping trips to Manchester, complete with selfies taken as evidence for their relatives, before heading to a bleak waiting room alone. And, hopefully, no more Savitas, left to die because of a law that offered no protection to her or the baby she wanted. The Irish women who told their stories, and the men who supported them, have made history. And as one sign in Dublin Castle declared: “The north is next.” 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead