Abortion is one of the most controversial, divisive issues Ireland has ever had to face. 34 years ago, Irish citizens voted to amend their constitution to give an unborn child the same right to life as a pregnant woman, banning abortion. Ireland, once an extremely catholic, conservative country, has evolved and modernized over recent years, and is no longer the country that voted for this radical policy all those years ago. Following the announcement of a referendum for summer 2018 to repeal this eighth amendment, Ireland’s student and youth communities are taking the lead in the battle towards giving the women of Ireland the right to choose what to do with their own bodies.
The issue of abortion in Ireland is one that has been debated back and forth since the amendment was passed in 1983. The amendment states: “The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”. Between 1983 and 2016, 170,216 Irish women have been forced to travel abroad to access safe, legal abortions. This is roughly 12 women a day. Whilst Ireland has grown to become a much more liberal country, they still have one of the world’s most restrictive laws regarding termination, and have been urged by the European council’s human rights commissioner to loosen them. Today, abortions are only allowed if there is an immediate danger to the mother’s life. A total ban was only lifted in 2013 when a woman lost her life after being refused an abortion by her hospital, the reason being that “this is a catholic country”. The human rights commissioner Nils Muizneiks has said that Ireland has developed “culturally, politically, socially”, and that the country’s current stance on this issue does not reflect this progress. Having been the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, many wonder how a country can be so understanding of some people’s rights, while ignoring the rights of others.
For these past 34 years, Irish feminists and activists have been fighting for a change through a series of events and movements in support of abortion. However, now more than ever Ireland’s student and youth population are heading these campaigns and are actively working towards repealing this controversial part their constitution. All of the major universities in Ireland have held referendums concerning the view of their student union on the topic of abortion, of which all have voted that they are pro-choice and in favor of a repeal. The recent impeachment of the University College Dublin student union president due to her lack of respect and upkeep of the universities’ pro-choice mandate is an example of how dedicated the young student community is to this cause.
One event which has received a huge backing from students in the recent years is the annual ‘March for choice’, which has been carried out since 2011. This year saw the largest turn out to date, with tens of thousands taking the streets of Dublin to show their support for the cause. Events were also carried out in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Brussels, with people all over the world, Irish or not, showing solidarity with the women of Ireland. Before the event, over 1,000 students from various universities across the country gathered in Trinity College to hear speeches from figureheads of the student-led campaigns within the universities. This included the president of the Union of Students in Ireland Michael Kerrigan, who hopes that with the news of a referendum Ireland is at the “final few hurdles” after campaigning for this change for over three decades.
Social media activism is another key aspect of this campaign. In August 2016 two young women documented their journey overseas for an abortion on Twitter, using the hashtag #TwoWomenTravel. This documentation not only illustrated Ireland’s restrictive rules to the rest of the world, but also proved how powerful social media can be in spreading a message. Another example of this is the Strike4Repeal campaign, which involved a march through Dublin city in March this year falling on International Women’s Day. By the time the day of the march arrived, the Facebook page for the event had over 10,000 likes, and the word ‘repeal’ was one of the most popular searches on Google in Ireland in the days leading up to it. Not only did Facebook and social media notify people of the event, it also allowed those who were present to share their experiences of the day with those around the world, again using a hashtag, #Strike4Repeal.
Although polls show a majority wanting to see this change in their constitution, the opposing pro-life argument also has a large amount of support from the population, both young and old. Cora Sherlock, a spokesperson for the opposition, says that “100,000 people are alive thanks to the insertion of the eighth amendment”, and that the campaign does not deserve the amount of criticism they receive in the media. One campaign in particular that holds a lot of support from the younger generation is Youth Defence, an organisation for young people who believe that “life is worth protecting”. Despite the pro-choice movements receiving a lot of positive attention from the media, organisations such as Youth Defence still have a large support system behind them, which could potentially make the goal of legalizing abortion harder to reach.
With the referendum fast approaching, Ireland’s youth population are doing everything they can to make sure that this restrictive part of their constitution is repealed. Although Ireland is a small country, they are making a lot of noise on the international stage, with the campaigns receiving news coverage and support from people all over the world. The passion that exudes from these campaigns shows that the country has changed its way of conservative thinking, and is hopefully now prepared to give its women the rights that they should have always been entitled to.