The victory over abortion rights in 2018 was an extraordinary achievement. In a society where the Catholic church dominated so much of life, the referendum saw two-thirds of people vote to sweep away the most restrictive abortion laws.
The result, as Catholic Primate of all Ireland Eamon Martin put it, “hit us between the eyes”. But the reactionaries did not just give up and go away. And rights on paper are not the same as turning them into reality.
“We’ve achieved a lot but we’ve got a long way to go—Repeal is an unfinished business,” says Brid Smith, a member of the Irish parliament for People Before Profit. Speaking to Socialist Worker Brid said, “It has to be about pure choice. We want the politics to be about choice, that’s what people voted for, they didn’t vote for controlling women.”
Five years on from the Repeal victory, activists are still battling to give women and pregnant people in Ireland the healthcare they need and deserve. On 24 May 2018, voters agreed to scrap the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which effectively made abortion illegal. Added in 1983 it set the rights of a pregnant woman on an equal footing with the rights of a foetus.
The reactionary legislation was brought in after abortion law was liberalised in Britain. The scale of the shift to overturn the amendment was a fantastic achievement. The reactionary Catholic Church controlled the state—today it still runs the health care and education systems.
The 8th meant information about abortions couldn’t even be shared, although activists resisted this despite repression. But a mass movement for the right for women to choose led to revolution at the ballot box. Brid is bringing a new bill to parliament that aims to radically improve abortion law and make the previously won rights a reality. That’s why there’s unfinished business—the reactionaries aren’t going away.
Now there are two major fights. There is a battle for improved legislation, ideally one that truly decriminalises abortion. And there’s the fight for better service provision under the current laws. When asked on polling day, some 84 percent of Yes voters said their main motivation was the “right to choose.”
“It was a very comfortable victory, and sent a clear message to regulate in line with what Repeal had suggested,” said Brid. Yet despite the stunning result, the legislation that effectively replaced the 8th Amendment fell far short of giving women genuine choice over their crisis pregnancies.
The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 allows abortions under certain limited legal criteria. Abortions are permitted if the pregnancy is under 12 weeks and the woman attends two appointments three days apart. By comparison in Britain, abortion is supposed to be provided until 23 weeks and 6 days.
Abortions in Ireland are also allowed if there is a “serious risk to the life or health” of a woman. Or when two doctors agree the foetus is likely to die within 28 days of birth. Sinead Kennedy, co-founder of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, told Socialist Worker that the 2018 law was a missed opportunity.
“The law that we got subsequently fell very short of what people would have liked, and what they think the law is,” she said. “When writing the law, Ireland had the benefit of taking a blank piece of paper. Yet it is drafted on the basis that abortion is illegal, but details the limited circumstances on which people can access it.”
It has punitive measures written into it, designed to satisfy conservative politicians. Whatever the law says, the reality on the ground means that women are still struggling to access services. One of these is a lack of investment in the healthcare system, causing a crisis of scarcity. The Department for Health was under obligation to commission a three-year report into the implementation of the 2018 Act, with the results published in April.
One of the most shocking discoveries is that only 11 of the 19 maternity hospitals were offering abortion services. The Department of Health has attributed the “non-participation” of hospitals to the “prevalence of consciousness objection above medical practitioners.” Even for health workers willing to provide services, access remains patchy.
Sinead said some women face a “daily round trip of around 100 miles” to access an early medication abortion in the first trimester. “There’s a lot of rural communities, lots of problems with public transport—outside of urban areas it’s very difficult to access abortion. That can involve a lot of travel, which is not necessarily easy, for low income women, migrant women, disabled women.”
Throughout the entire process, doctors and other health care professionals are operating under the constant threat of criminalisation. If they are found to fall foul of the rules, they face up to 14 years in prison. “Doctors have to stand over impossible decisions,” said Brid. For example, abortions are legal if a foetus is thought to only live for 28 days. Yet, if they live longer than that for 29 or 30 days, there is a risk of litigation.
Women and pregnant people are still forced to travel abroad for care, often to Liverpool or London. Brid describes the plight of hundreds of women still forced to travel as “a shame on our country.” “To finish the business of Repeal it is going to require the resurgence of the pro-choice movement. We have to keep raising the slogans about trusting women and ‘our body, our choice’.”
Campaigning to take back power from establishment
Repeal was never just about abortions. It was about generations of working class Irish women taking on a conservative establishment. They made it clear that they had the right to control their own bodies, and their own lives. Yet despite the demand for Repeal driven by ordinary people, there’s a battle on for the legacy of the vote.
Brid explains that the campaign was brimming with “activists on a local level” organising to get the Yes vote out in their communities. “It involved everyone from young men and women involved in the same sex marriage referendum to older women who had lived through the dark ages of Catholic Ireland.
“They were very conscious of the need for women to control their own bodies.” Despite the swell of support for Yes, key politicians had to be dragged tooth and nail into backing Repeal. Once they did, they attempted to limit the demands of it.
“It’s important to remember it was a grassroots campaign that led to abortion laws changing. It was the activists who drove this—they informed the energy of this referendum,” said Sinead. Yet, almost as soon as the result was announced to a joyous crowd at Dublin Castle on 26 May, politicians tried to whitewash any sense of this resistance.
Prime minister Leo Varadkar only declared his support for reform several months previously. He boasted that the result was “a quiet revolution.” This was a deliberate attempt to obscure the decades of activists tirelessly fighting tooth and nail to smash the 8th. For Sinead, the impact goes beyond the realms of legislative change, however important that is.
She explains that the experience of the grassroots movement challenged the wider societal silence around sexism. Now it has infused young activists with the sense that victory is possible. “One of the lasting impacts of Repeal is a reckoning of Irish history, with the experience of women and other marginalised groups,” she said.
“People weren’t just talking about the experience of abortion. They’re also talking about other experiences around Ireland and society, such as talking about mother and baby homes and violence against women. You have this whole generation of young people involved in the campaign for marriage equality, and the abortion referendum. People seeing the possibility of change happening is important.”
Celebrating the battle for freedom that made history
The landslide two-to-one vote to repeal the 8th amendment led to celebrations as it became known. “The formal announcement of the result was greeted by joyous scenes at the count in Dublin and throughout Ireland,” Socialist Worker reported at the time. “And the vote to repeal was widely supported in rural Ireland, as well as the cities—Donegal was the only constituency that voted in favour of No.”
Sinead Kennedy told Socialist Worker during the celebrations in 2018, “It is an extraordinary day. A grassroots campaign led by women, many of whom had never been involved in politics, removed one of the most oppressive articles in our constitution. Today Ireland finally acknowledged that women deserve choice and bodily autonomy. We have literally made history.”
Brid Smith told a celebration in Dublin at the time, “We’ve put a nail in the coffin of moralism, and Catholic nonsense.” Mary, a retired midwife and Dublin South Central Together For Yes co‑convenor, told Socialist Worker after the victory that the result left her “astounded and delighted”.
“I’ve been waiting for this result for 35 years and to get it two-to-one is amazing,” she said. “Every leader has dragged their feet or opposed change for women. Even Sinn Fein—they supported repeal but not choice.”
Socialist Worker also recorded the importance of abortion struggles still to come. “This is a huge victory and is of worldwide importance. It is a blow to conservative forces in Ireland and Britain that seek to control women’s bodies.
“But as 2 million women in Ireland have just gained rights over their own bodies, around 1 million women in British-ruled Northern Ireland are still subject to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.”
Crisis in North
Westminster claims that Northern Ireland is part of Britain. Yet the 1967 Abortion Act, which allows terminations in some circumstances across Britain, was never extended to Northern Ireland. So, like women in the South, women still had to travel to England to access abortion.
Abortion is a devolved matter, but devolution in Northern Ireland was suspended because of a political deadlock lasting for three years from 2017. In 2019, MPs in Westminster passed legislation to bring abortion law closer in line with England, Wales and Scotland. But women in Northern Ireland still don’t have the full rights afforded under the 1967 Act.
Almost four years on, permanent long-ranging abortion services are yet to be implemented. Since 2020, doctors have been able to carry out early abortions up to ten weeks. But the implementation is insufficient, and the service is running on an “ad hoc” basis. Women deserve decent health care, both north and south of the border.
For more go to bit.ly/SWIreland2018Original post