One Year on from Ireland's Abortion Referendum, Things Aren't Moving Fast Enough

The Irish public may have overwhelmingly voted to legalize abortion, but implementing it is proving trickier than expected.

by Mary McGill
24 May 2019, 10:52am

Photo: Laura Hutton / Alamy Stock Photo

With Roe v. Wade facing death by a thousand cuts in US states like Alabama and Georgia, it is hard to remember that this time last year a landmark win for reproductive rights was on the horizon. On May 25 2018, the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal what was one of the most draconian abortion laws in the world. It was an outcome few campaigners had dared to dream was possible.

Galway East in rural West of Ireland was the first constituency to be called after the referendum. Aoife Moore, a local pro-choice activist and canvass leader for the Repeal campaign, was in the count centre when it happened. “It was like, disbelief,” she tells me, describing the moment the returning officer confirmed that three out of five voters in her constituency had turned out for Repeal. “I just remember my legs went, literally, the exhaustion hit. I had to sit down. It felt like slow motion, looking at everybody; they were all hugging and they were crying and they were happy.”

The Repeal triumph was especially meaningful in rural communities like Galway East, which some assumed to be too conservative to support the removal of Ireland’s notorious Eighth Amendment that banned abortion in almost all instances. It was a happy surprise when all but one constituency voted to overturn the Eighth, ushering in a system where abortion care is available up to 12 weeks with additional provisions for fatal foetal abnormality and the right to life of the mother.

“It’s being rolled out very slowly,” Moore says when I ask about access to these new services. “Doctors have questions about how they're going to provide this service so it’s going to take some time. Definitely in rural communities. Things seem to move faster in the cities or the towns, whereas I think in rural areas it has to be something that people get used to very slowly.”

The failure to speedily enact legislation to implement exclusion zones around facilities providing abortion has led to anti-abortion protests outside some GP offices and medical centres. In the city of Galway, some 20 minutes from Galway East, anti-abortion campaigners picketed a medical centre just days after abortion was legalised, standing directly outside the entrance to the building. While legislation is forthcoming to introduce safe zones designed to protect those seeking abortion care, there is also the issue of provision. Currently, 317 GPs have signed up to provide abortion services, but not every county has a provider. In rural areas, this is a real concern.

Repeal protesters in Ireland
Photo: DPA picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

When I ask Moore what the present lack of exclusion zones and poor provision means for those in rural areas, she quickly points out the difficulties of struggling with already limited options and the fear of being recognised or intimidated when trying to access abortion care: “If you are in a small village and you have one doctor and if you have a woman who cannot go into her doctor’s, you also have to remember that there might be so many other circumstances like transport or money or issues with domestic violence at home, that will block her access to going elsewhere.” As Ireland’s abortion services bed in and develop, these issues still need to be overcome.

When people at a Repeal event complimented then-student Shubhangi Karmakar on her artistic talent, the art she created for the campaign morphed into Repealist, a jewellery line that became popular in the run-up to the referendum. “I went home for the summer and figured out how to use a laser cutter and a makerspace. And then I figured out that I had a bit of a knack for designing jewelry, “ Karmakar tells me.

As a student on a limited budget, Repealist became a philanthropic way for her to support the campaign but also to provide another aspect to the conversation. “I started doing it, I think, in terms of visibility. The REPEAL jumper was the biggest thing out there,” she explains, referring to the now iconic sweatshirt. “The reason I started with Repealist was because I didn't see enough stuff that was bright. I created it because I didn't want choice to be a black and white binary option.”

Discussing the issue of abortion access for marginalised groups, Karmakar, who is the head of Medical Students for Choice Ireland, says of the Irish medical system in general: “Having had my own interactions with various services, women's pain is marginalized in this country and it's minimized. However, for women of color, any kind of expression of emotion is made hyper aggressive [and] is hyper racialized. You're seen as being either too unruly, too scary, and people are fearful to be around you or trust you, or you're seen as someone whose voice isn't significant. I think that's a huge barrier.”

A key catalyst for last year’s referendum was the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. An Indian dentist living in Galway, Savita was denied an abortion after suffering an incomplete miscarriage. She then developed sepsis that proved fatal. Karmakar highlights that many migrant women in still face “additional barriers”. She mentions those isolated within Ireland’s much-criticised direct provision system, where asylum- seekers are housed while their application is processed – which can take years. When it comes to abortion care in these contexts, Karmakar says, “the reality is, I would fear whether those services are meaningfully available.”

While the Republic of Ireland’s abortion services are still finding their feet, campaigners in Northern Ireland are struggling to make their voices heard. “The situation in Northern Ireland as regards reproductive justice is an active harm and daily blight on the lives of people who can get pregnant here,” Maeve O’Brien tells me. She has campaigned in both the Republic and the North for reproductive rights. “We are still subject to governance under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This is not a law in the abstract – in recent months women in the North have been prosecuted for taking abortifacient pills – or in fact, for supplying pills, in the case of a mother who provided pills to her daughter who was pregnant due to an abusive relationship.”

Now for Northern Ireland artwork projected in Belfast
A "Now for Northern Ireland" artwork projected on The Mac building in Belfast. Photo: Amnesty and Simon Graham

As O’Brien highlights, although Northern Ireland forms part of the UK, it is not subject to the same abortion laws. “Honestly, the fact that Northern Ireland is sandwiched between two jurisdictions that make provisions for abortions and aftercare yet withhold access to those in the North is sickening and feels like an explicit punishment of women,” she says, listing the myriad of challenges faced by campaigners, including the North’s complex history and political situation, and a lack of attention from the wider community.

Emphasizing the need for solidarity in the form of action, O’Brien points out, “If what was happening in Belfast was happening in London, there would be riots. We need people in GB to apply visible pressure to Theresa May and demand the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. For those in the Republic of Ireland, it is worthwhile to remember that activists in the North stood with you and now we ask that the momentum, platform and presence of the successful pro-choice campaign be directed towards the North.”

Speaking about the "Repeal-iversary", Moore calls it “bittersweet”, pointing out that while huge positive change has occurred in Ireland, more remains to be done. “Especially with our sisters and our siblings up in the North,” she says. It is a sentiment that echoes across the island of Ireland and beyond, put best perhaps by O’Brien. “We fight on,” she says, reflecting on the recent passage of a bill that bans almost all abortions in Alabama. It is a fitting spirit in which to celebrate a historic win for reproductive rights while honouring the struggle that lies ahead.