Visible Women

One year on from Ireland’s abortion referendum, women reflect on how life has changed

On the first anniversary of Ireland’s historic referendum on abortion, an activist, a politician, a doctor and a pro-choice podcaster tell Stylist what the last year has meant. 

It’s now been one year since the Republic of Ireland chose to give women autonomy over their lives and bodies. In a landslide referendum on 25 May 2018, the country voted overwhelmingly in favour of legalising abortion by repealing the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which stated that a pregnant woman and an unborn foetus had an equal right to life. Almost 65% of Ireland’s population took part in the highly-charged, historic referendum, which was heavily influenced by grassroots feminist activism and saw thousands of Irish expats travel home to vote.

Ultimately, 66.4% of voters from all corners of Ireland approved the repeal and replacement of the eighth amendment – and since then, things have moved quickly. The 36th amendment to the constitution, which allowed the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) to legislate for abortion, took effect on 18 September. Three and a half months later, at the very start of 2019, the first legal abortion services were rolled out in Ireland. It was the dawn of a new era.

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Today, abortion is becoming a fact of life in Ireland. But the new law isn’t faultless, and there are still issues with accessibility. Just 11% of GPs in Ireland have signed up to perform terminations, and several counties have yet to establish any abortion services at all. The new law also only permits abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and requires women to wait three days after their first consultation with a GP before they can terminate a pregnancy – a delay that serves no medical purpose and can seriously complicate women’s lives.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the historic referendum, Stylist caught up with four women involved in the Yes campaign to hear their thoughts on the last 12 months. Here’s what they had to say. 

The activist

Mara Clarke is the founder of the Abortion Support Network (ASN). The grassroots group helps people travel from Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Malta and Gibraltar to access safe and legal abortions.  

Mara Clarke, Abortion Support Network
Mara Clarke,  founder of the Abortion Support Network

“Many of us were pleasantly shocked by how quickly abortion provision was rolled out. There was a little confusion at the beginning, which wasn’t helped by a Dublin man setting up an anti-choice website called My Options [the same name as the unplanned pregnancy support service launched by HSE, Ireland’s health service]. But overall, it’s been amazing to see how successful it has been.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and there are definite holes in the legislation. Under the new law, abortions can be carried out by GPs in Ireland until nine weeks, and after that, they have to be done in a hospital. But not many hospitals are actually providing abortion care yet, so that causes trouble. At the ASN, we’re still hearing from people who need to leave Ireland for an abortion – either because they’re already more than 12 weeks pregnant, or because they’re fast approaching that point and are scared that they won’t be able to get an appointment in time.

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We’re also still hearing from people in extremely complicated situations: young women, women escaping abusive relationships. It can take up to five appointments to get a medical abortion in Ireland, but what if you’re homeless? Where will you take the tablets – which can cause heavy bleeding, cramps, nausea, diarrhoea and fever – if you’ve nowhere to live? What if you’re a refugee, asylum seeker or foreign student who’s more than 12 weeks pregnant, but you can’t travel out of Ireland for an abortion because you don’t have the right documents? I don’t want to criticise the law. I just want to know what the pathway is for people who fall outside of it.

For me, the big tell will be one year from provision – in January 2020 – rather than one year from the referendum. Then we’ll be able to see how many women in Ireland are still ordering safe but illegal tablets online. We’ll be able to see how many women and pregnant people are still giving Irish addresses at English abortion clinics.

The new law isn’t amazing, but it is a massive improvement. Anybody who gets a safe abortion without getting on a boat or a plane is a victory. And one very positive thing we’ve noticed is that when women call us from Ireland now, they’re not so apologetic. Before the referendum, our Irish clients would often be carrying so much shame. But now, they’re just like: ‘I need an abortion. Can you help me?’ And we can. And we do.”

The politician

Ivana Bacik is the leader of the Irish Labour Party in the Seanad and a senator for the University of Dublin constituency. 

“I’d been pushing for the repeal of the eighth amendment since 1989, when I was taken to court by a group called the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC). At the time, it was illegal to give women information about abortion in Ireland. Doctors wouldn’t do it, women’s counselling services wouldn’t do it – even women’s magazines were censored coming into the country if they contained ads for Marie Stopes or BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service). But I was president of the Students Union at Trinity College Dublin, and we would provide women with the phone numbers of abortion clinics in Britain.

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Fortunately, our brilliant lawyer Mary Robinson – later the first female president of Ireland – kept us out of prison, and for the next three decades I stayed strongly involved in the campaign for reproductive rights. If you told me as a student that it would take 30 years to repeal the eighth amendment, I would have been horrified – but I was delighted when we finally did it in 2018. We thought we might win marginally, so it was an incredible feeling to achieve a 66.4% yes vote.

I think it’s remarkable how quickly and efficiently abortion services have been rolled out. Starting on 1 January 2019 was an ambitious target for a country that had literally never provided this service before, but we did it. In December, our national health service website began offering information on how to access abortion for the first time. I cried when I saw that.

I’ve also found it uplifting how many doctors have stepped up to work with ministers and the government on the new service. Doctors don’t have to provide abortions under the new law, but there are now over 300 GPs across the country signed up. And when I talk to doctors, midwives and people working in maternity hospitals, they’re all amazed at how quickly the service has become normalised. Provision is still patchy in some places, but it certainly beats having to get on a plane to England.

Unfortunately, some clinics are being targeted with anti-choice protests. It’s predictable but frustrating: we’ve been pushing the government to legislate for exclusion or ‘buffer’ zones around clinics, and health minister Simon Harris has promised to do so. While we need this legislation, it’s also been refreshing to see how little publicity the protesters have been given. Having been personally targeted and picketed on this issue over the years, I don’t like giving oxygen to those who refuse to face up to the democratic will of the people.

I hope the protests will dwindle away as people recognise that abortion is legal in Ireland now, and it’s not going away. Those who lost the debate must learn to live with it. There’s no going back.”

The doctor

Dr Caitriona Henchion is the medical director of the Irish Family Planning Association, Ireland’s leading sexual health charity. In January, the IFPA’s medical clinics in Dublin began offering abortion services for the first time. 

Dr Caitriona Henchion, medical director, IFPA
Dr Caitriona Henchion, medical director of the Irish Family Planning Association 

“This time last year, everybody was delighted. The run-up to the referendum was a very anxious time, because if the eighth amendment was not repealed, I felt it would not be revisited for a long time. But not only did it get repealed, it got repealed with a good majority and a strong turnout. That made it all the more decisive.

But that doesn’t mean that rolling out provision has been easy. Until very recently, we had absolutely no infrastructure for providing abortions. We’ve had to move extremely fast in a health service that can be quite slow and cumbersome, as well as educating medical professionals who’d never provided abortion services before. The process of abortion itself isn’t complex. But establishing seamless connections between different groups and services – clinics, GP surgeries, pharmacies, hospitals – has been very stressful at times.

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Now, though, it has come together very well. And there’s been a great feeling of cooperation between colleagues. I think when you have a service that is somewhat divisive, those people who willing to get involved tend to really support each other.

Elements of the legislation will cause difficulties. Our biggest concern about the 12-week gestational limit is that if the medication used in medical abortions is unsuccessful – in other words, if there’s an ongoing pregnancy – it can cause harmful foetal effects. But if the procedure doesn’t work, and a foetal abnormality is then diagnosed after 12 weeks, that woman is not entitled to complete the termination.

Ultrasounds aren’t freely available on the Irish health service, so we have a real anxiety about confirming that procedures have been successful before 12 weeks. If you start a process, it must be allowed to be finished.

Another issue is that the service isn’t available nationwide yet – so women may still be having to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion, even if they’re not leaving Ireland. That’s unacceptable.

I would like to see as many GP surgeries as possible providing abortions, because it makes [anti-choice] protests much more difficult. We’ve had some protests outside our clinics, although it hasn’t been as big an issue as we expected. But it’s harder to target a general practice, because how can you possibly know what women are going in there for? It makes it a much safer environment. In terms of de-stigmatising and normalising abortion, I think it’s by far the best thing we could do.”

The podcaster

Andrea Horan hosted the pro-choice podcast Don’t Stop Repealin’ with her friend Una Mullally in the run-up to last year’s referendum. The first episode of their new political podcast, United Ireland, is out now. 

“I always thought of myself as a campaigner rather than an activist. We wanted the podcast to inspire and inform people and help them get through the stress of the campaign, and I did loads of canvassing in the run-up to the referendum. It was really fulfilling; when you swoop in and change someone’s mind on their doorstep, you feel like you’re getting shit done.

But once we got the yes vote, I kind of pulled back from it all. There were loads of pieces that still needed to be picked up after the referendum in terms of logistics and access and all that sort of thing. But I was like, OK, this has taken up a lot of my life. I need to turn off from it all for a bit.

Recently, though, I’ve been getting notifications on Facebook and Instagram showing me memories from this time last year. And it just brings all the emotions back. It reminds me how stressful it was; how we just didn’t know how it was going to go. I was constantly thinking, is there anything else I can do? Because I didn’t want to get to the day of the referendum and think, oh god, if only I’d done that.

On the night itself, we could tell from the exit polls that the result was going to be good. That was really nice, because it meant we had the evening to quietly process the more emotional side of things – I hadn’t actually realised how many feelings I was carrying around about the whole thing. When the official announcement came out the next day, it was much more of a jubilant celebration.

What’s been most poignant for me this week is thinking about how we’ve come so far, yet my sisters in Northern Ireland have been left behind. Abortion is still illegal there, and they’re not being looked after by Northern Ireland or the government in Westminster. So it’s been a good year for us in Ireland – but it’s bittersweet.”

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who have pushed for change and made a difference. See more Visible Women stories here

Main image: Getty Images 

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