Learning As We Walk

Lessons from Ireland’s abortion referendum in the current global context.

by Comhlámh member Janet Horner.


The annual Abortion Rights Campaign March from 2017. Photo Credits: Paula Geraghty

On May 25th 66.4% of the Irish people voted to repeal a 35 year long constitutional ban on abortion. In doing so, they sent a powerful signal to the world that abortion rights are human rights and that when people hear from and understand one another they choose compassion, respect and support over stigma and shame. The campaign was long, well over 35 years for many activists, and, at points, it was fraught. However, there were valuable lessons learnt which can now be brought to the global level to continue to progress women’s rights and equality and to tackle societal stigmas wherever they may exist.


A first and most obvious lesson is that change can and does happen on the back of tireless grassroots activism and organisation. Over the years since the eighth amendment was inserted into the Irish constitution and in the years preceding that, it would often have seemed impossible to have taken the kind of step forward which we did as a society this year.But it was made possible because of the day-in, day-out activism and the bravery of those willing to speak out in increasing numbers over that time.


A second lesson is that change inspires change. 2018 is also the centenary of suffrage for some women so it may be apt to quote the British suffragist Millicent Fawcett (who, notably, was only this year commemorated for the first time in a statue in Parliament Square following a grassroots campaign calling for more representation of women in statues), who said “courage calls to courage everywhere”.


In the immediate aftermath of the landslide vote to repeal the eighth amendment, an emergency debate was called in Westminster about the ongoing denial of abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Shortly afterwards, Argentina’s lower house of parliament voted to liberalise the country’s strict abortion laws. In both these cases the Irish referendum was regularly referenced by parliamentarians and activists. It was clear that Ireland would no longer provide a veil of legitimacy to laws in other countries that stigmatise and endanger people in crisis.


Thirdly, we now have an opportunity to offer leadership globally on the issue of reproductive rights. The powerful signal sent out by the referendum result will continue to be highly important in the fraught political landscape of reproductive rights in Europe and globally. Maternal mortality remains a significant threat to the health of people in pregnancy – particularly those who are poor or marginalised in many countries of the Global South.


Addressing it is an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda and yet the political will to achieve progress in this area is being eroded in Europe and the U.S. After Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, his administration immediately re-imposed the global gag order which denies USAID funding to any development organisation providing abortion services or even information about abortion services.


This had the immediate effect of reducing essential medical supports to millions of people in pregnancy in the Global South. In Europe, the “pro-life” lobbyists and campaigners are becoming more coordinated and seeking to exert greater political influence. A conservative think-tank called Agenda Europe connects parliamentarians and public figures across Europe dedicated to rescinding reproductive and LGBQI+ rights and opposing sexual liberation.


The impact of this movement can be seen in Italy, where doctors are facing growing pressure and intimidation to join the register of “conscientious objectors” to abortion, and in Poland, where legislation has been proposed to further restrict abortion access. The decisive result of Ireland’s referendum should offer hope to those fighting against these regressive and dangerous moves and provide a warning to those who would seek further restrictions on human freedoms and rights.


While a referendum on fundamental medical rights and social equalities bears a very high personal cost to those who have the most at stake in the results of the vote, it can also provoke an important public conversation. Inclusive conversations allowed the evidence of the impact of the eighth amendment to be brought to light in a meaningful and personal way which proved highly impactful. This should reassure us of the power of honest, mature and persistent conversation to tackle a major societal stigma. We should seek to support those in every part of the world who are bravely starting important conversations.


Finally, the power and importance of young women’s voices and participation in politics and public life cannot be overlooked in this referendum. There was a 94% increase in women aged 18-24 voting in this referendum over the most recent general election on the back of a campaign characterised by young and female voices and leadership. The unprecedented landslide result owes much to the role played by this demographic which is so often marginalised in mainstream political discourse. Our society is stronger and more compassionate for providing a fair and inclusive platform to all voices and this must be strengthened and extended at all levels of politics.


There are other essential lessons to take away about the processes of deliberative democracy, about manipulation and regulation of social media in democratic processes, about inclusion and representation in public conversations about social issues, among many others. We should not miss the opportunity to open up further important conversations on these topics and to use this hard won victory to continue the advance of social, global and gender justice.



The above article was written for issue 103 of Focus magazine which you can read in full online or download here.