MAY 25 this year was a historic day — so much so, that some of us in the Cork campaign got it permanently inked onto our bodies.
After 35 years, the harmful and dangerous Article 40.3.3. of the Irish Constitution, better known as the Eighth Amendment, was repealed by a huge majority of Irish people. At last, women and pregnant people in Ireland could have the right to decide for their own bodies and lives.
Many important dates have followed since, some of them quite recent: December 5, when the draft legislation was passed by the Dáil, and December 13, when it was passed by the Seanad. We’re hopeful that the President will have signed it into law before the end of the year.
This might come as a surprise to some readers. A common experience for campaigners, when talking to friends and family about progress with the legislation and the work left to be done, is the reply: ‘What are you talking about — I thought that was all done?’ In the days and weeks following the referendum, many of the thousands of people who got involved in Together for Yes went back to their lives. We had to — we had jobs, relationships, families, and above all, healing to consume our time.
But it wasn’t over. And it still isn’t. Women are still travelling this week, and we’re sad and angry to think that they’ve been forgotten. While we were rebuilding lives which had often been severely affected by the campaign and the unfairness of the No side, the legislation we voted for continued to be repeatedly attacked and defended, and made its way at last through the Dáil. Many of us, struggling with the return to normal life, felt guilty that we weren’t ‘doing more’ — that we weren’t continuing with the manic pace and workload of the referendum campaign. But the truth is each of us did our best, and continue to do so. And now it looks like provision of free, safe, legal abortion care in Ireland from early January could be a reality.
However, not all of us will benefit equally. There will still be people left behind, and despite all our hard work, women and pregnant people will still be travelling for abortion care in 2019.
Some of the concerns that activists had about draft legislation, such as the foregrounding of criminalisation, have been partially addressed — but many others remain. It still stipulates a three-day wait period between the first appointment and the procedure, which is crippling for people travelling long distances in poverty and with childcare issues. It has, at least, been changed to allow that the doctor who sees you for the second visit does not have to be the same doctor as on the first.
Once the legislation has passed, our work will continue. The referendum result, which saw two in every three voters choose to make abortion more widely available, proved that this is no longer a divisive issue.
A huge majority of people want the best possible provision of abortion services to be available in Ireland, and our task will be to ensure that this happens. The good news is that this phase will have far more opportunities for campaigners to get involved than the legislative period did — and we can work in the knowledge that this is no longer the polarised and harsh debate that many once believed it was.
One early task will be to open up the conversation about who needs to access abortion. In the limited and limiting space of the referendum, some voices were heard more clearly than others. In particular, trans men and non-binary people were less visible than women, and the needs of women experiencing health or other medical difficulties were much more prominent than those of women who needed abortion care for economic or other reasons. We need to bring them back into the conversation to ensure we can meet their needs and support them adequately.
As time goes on, we expect that pro-choice activism in Ireland will move away from the ‘one big event’ experience of the referendum, and more towards a rhythm of regular activity. We’ll need to check reports from the Department of Health to ensure that abortion services are being adequately resourced — because we need abortion to be accessible freely, safely, legally, and locally. We’ll have to fight for those resources to be guaranteed during the annual Budget, by keeping the issue and its importance in the minds of our public representatives.
We’ll need to make sure that doctors and healthcare practitioners, such as those involved in the Southern Taskgroup on Abortion and Reproductive Topics (START), feel supported in their work.
And we’ll need to continue our conversation with the public about the importance of accessible abortion care through social media, information stalls, and events. There will always be plenty to do.
This new type of activism will seem very different to the experience of the referendum campaign, but it will be essential to protect what we fought to achieve. A day may come when abortion is just another boring, business-as-usual topic in Ireland — and that’s when we’ll know we’ve won.
Kathy D’Arcy and Luke Field were the Chair and Deputy Chair respectively of Cork Together for Yes, and are members of Rebels4Choice, the Cork branch of the Abortion Rights Campaign.
For more information on Rebels4Choice, follow them on Facebook and Twitter (@Rebels4Choice). For a pro-choice medical perspective, follow START on Twitter (@STARTDoctors).