As Irish citizens recently voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment and thereby allow legislation for abortion, it earned headlines and worldwide attention during what is being hailed as one of the most important historical events for women in the country today.
As it was, the Eighth Amendment prevented terminations of pregnancies in almost all cases — even those where it was clear a baby would not survive outside the womb, or a woman was pregnant due to rape or incest. That’s because Ireland’s law viewed women and fetuses as having an equal right to life.
The final result was 66.4 percent voting yes to repeal the Eighth Amendment and 33.6 percent casting their votes for no. Notably, the voter turnout for the referendum decision was a record 64.51 percent, suggesting this was not a matter where people thought it was OK not to weigh in with their opinions.
A divisive campaign
Both sides were undoubtedly passionate about the cause, with many people making the brave decision to speak about extremely personal issues ranging from miscarriages to forced intercourse. The race was close during much of the campaign. However, in the later stages, the “yes” side pulled ahead in the polls — perhaps signifying the eventual landslide result.
The pro-abortion rights campaigners — also known as Repealers — became recognizable thanks to their black shirts with “Repeal” across the front in white block letters.
Their campaign messages focused on how legislating for abortion would allow for Ireland to treat women with more compassion by giving them the reproductive care they needed or desired in their home country, instead of making them travel to receive it.
The Repealers also pointed out having the Eighth Amendment in place prevented doctors from making the best decisions about patient care, even at a patient’s request. They could not refer patients to clinics in other countries, which meant women who chose to avail of them were often doing so blindly with no information beforehand.
People in favor of repeal also brought up how nine people travel to the United Kingdom daily and a further three order abortion pills online to take at home in Ireland.
In both cases, getting caught trying to terminate a pregnancy while still in Ireland came with a potential 14-year prison sentence that also extended to doctors who gave their patients more specifics about how to seek abortions.
The anti-abortion campaigners who were against removing the Eighth Amendment from the Irish Constitution were also visible from a distance, thanks to their red-and-pink campaign-branded clothing. They targeted emotions, saying things such as “Abortion stops a beating heart” and “Real compassion doesn’t kill” — the latter a direct rebuttal to the Repealers’ “Yes for Compassion” poster.
“No” campaigners — sometimes called the anti-choice side — also targeted people with disabilities and asserted allowing abortions until up to 12 weeks of pregnancy would have put them at risk of never being born.
Clarification emerged, though, to say an instance that would allow a woman to abort a disabled child would only apply in the case of a fatal fetal abnormality. It is not usually possible to diagnose those within 12 weeks, so the proposed new law will allow terminating those pregnancies until the point of viability for the fetus, which is typically about six months.
The groups involved in the cause
The anti-abortion campaigners split into two distinctive campaigns called Love Both and Save the Eighth, with the former being the slightly less aggressive arm of the two.
They also brought over pro-life Americans who wanted to get involved in a world-changing event — a tactic many people in Ireland viewed as deceptive, since those Americans could only be involved temporarily.
Plus, they took a side on an issue that was arguably unfamiliar to many of them, since there are distinctive differences between Irish and American politics and campaign practices.
The pro-abortion rights side campaigned under a unified umbrella known as Together for Yes. However, there were other groups, such as Amnesty International and Rosa — a United Kingdom-based charity for women’s and girls’ issues — that joined the Repealers and printed materials in support of the cause.
Local politicians also campaigned on both sides of the cause, sometimes in opposition to their party’s stance on the matter.
How a tragic death finally spurred change
The 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, a dentist living in Ireland who was originally from India, was an event that caused people to finally realize the country’s abortion laws had to change. It was certainly not the only fatality caused by the Eighth Amendment, but it attracted international attention and made other women realize their lives were at stake.
Halappanavar died after contracting septicemia during a miscarriage after being denied an abortion. When she was 17 weeks pregnant, Halappanavar went to the hospital with back pain, where doctors told her she was having a miscarriage. However, medical professionals also told her it would be illegal to terminate the pregnancy while the fetus still had a heartbeat.
She repeatedly requested an abortion, but health care workers denied her, so she had to wait days for the fetus’ heartbeat to stop. By that time, Halappanavar had developed the infection that would ultimately kill her.
Those on the pro-life side argued that Halappanavar died because of the septicemia, not the Eighth Amendment. However, an investigation by Irish health authorities concluded “confusion” over those laws was a contributing factor in the fatality.
While campaigning for the Repeal side, many did so in memory of Savita Halappanavar. They knew change came too late for her, but they could work hard to ensure other women didn’t suffer the same fate.
Repealers unveiled a massive mural in Dublin featuring Halappanavar’s smiling face and the word “Yes” shortly after the vote for repeal went through. People flocked to the site to write messages on sticky notes and attach them to the wall in her memory.
A breakdown of the legal proposals
Now that Ireland played such a substantial role in one of the historical events that changed the world, it’s important to clarify what specifics the citizens voted to bring into law.
The proposal is for abortion to be legal in any case up to 12 weeks, but women must undergo a three-day “reflection period” between the time they initially request an abortion and when they receive it. Also, the majority of terminations will happen with abortion pills prescribed by physicians, not surgical abortions.
Abortions after 12 weeks will only be allowed in cases where the mother’s life is seriously at risk, or when the fetus has a condition that prevents its survival after delivery. In either case, two physicians — one being an obstetrician — must certify the fetus has not reached the point of viability. In the former instance, those professionals must confirm a danger exists to the life of the mother as a result of the pregnancy.
What happens next?
Despite the significant margin of loss for the anti-abortion campaigners, they have vowed to oppose the legislation. On a national radio broadcast in Ireland, Bishop Kevin Doran weighed in to say Repeal voters committed sins and should think about going to confession. His comments were understandably controversial.
Health Minister Simon Harris aims to introduce the new legislation before lawmakers go on their summer holidays. Regardless of when it happens, women living in Ireland who find themselves pregnant will soon have autonomy over their bodies at long last — without having to travel somewhere else to seek care.
Guestpost by Kate Harveston, Political Journalist & Blogger. Kate writes at onlyslightlybiased.com and tweets